When Alice Tennant, a successful writer and academic and a loving wife to Duncan, succumbs to a mysterious and debilitating pain, her life as she knows it changes forever. Pain consumes her and renders even the simplest actions like sitting or driving, almost impossible. As she attempts to research and find relief from her pain, Alice finds solace in the company of other women and books. She stumbles across the work of Isaac Baker Brown, a Victorian physician who treated women in severe pain as ‘hysterics’ and subjected them to horrific treatments in his London Surgical Home. Alice’s despair leads to an estrangement from her husband but also a deeper understanding of how her pain might echo that of women in Victorian England, as she attempts to write her experiences through a creative lens. This novel interrogates the notion that female bodily pain is still seen by many in the medical profession as fictitious or imagined, with the onus on the patient to prove otherwise.
About the Author
Josephine Taylor is a writer and editor who lives on the coast north of Perth, Western Australia. After developing chronic gynaecological pain in 2000, she surrendered her career as a psychotherapist and embarked on prize-winning research which culminated in a PhD based on her investigation into the condition known as vulvodynia. Josephine is currently an Associate Editor at Westerly and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at Edith Cowan University. She teaches in literary fiction and creative non-fiction, and presents on disorder and creativity. Her writing has been anthologised and published widely in several journals. Eye of a Rook is
her first novel.
Questions for discussion:
- Lee Kofman describes this novel as a ‘masterful exploration of the tangled relationship between body and self’. How does Eye of a Rook accomplish this?
- In the opening pages we are introduced to Alice and her husband Duncan on their way to visit a physiotherapist. What is your impression of the relationship between husband and wife? And what are your reasons?
- Contrast that to the relationship between Arthur and Emily. Which set of people evokes more sympathy and why do you think the author has chosen this way to tell the story?
- Duncan is described as an academic researching the life of Ernest Hemingway. What do you know about Hemingway’s attitude to women?
- Alice’s relationships with the women in her life – her mother and mother-in-law, her friend Penny and the women in the support group – are warmly described and articulated, but Duncan proves elusive, and the only males (apart from Arthur in the
Victorian timeline) are medical professionals. What are your thoughts on the privileging of a woman’s point of view in this story? Which other novels have you read that do this?
- The relationship between Arthur and Emily is lovingly portrayed, and contrasted with the sharpness that exists between Alice and Duncan. What do you think Alice hopes to achieve in her quest to resurrect the voices of the women she reads about in Baker Brown’s book?
- There are a few powerful motifs running through the novel. What is meant by the silk purse that Alice is given by Duncan? Which other motifs can you identify and unpack?
- The relationship between art, creativity and suffering is one of the ideas in this novel. Another is the attitude of medical professionals when women in pain are often told they need to do more to help themselves or are simply disbelieved. How
do these different strands work together or against each other?
- What do you understand after reading this novel that you didn’t before?
If you liked this book you may also like…
Pain and Prejudice, Gabrielle Jackson, Allen & Unwin, 2019
Imperfect, Lee Kofman, Affirm Press, 2019
Fauna, Donna Mazza, Allen & Unwin, 2020
Show Me Where It Hurts, Kylie Maslin, Text Publishing, 2020
The Salt Madonna, Catherine Noske, Picador, 2020
Shaping the Fractured Self: poetry of chronic illness and pain, ed. Heather Taylor Johnson, UWAP, 2017