Publication Date: 23rd January 2020
When I read the blurb for Little Bandaged Days by Kyra Wilder I had a very distinct feeling that this book would be very much a book for me. I have mentioned this before in previous reviews and I still have plans to write a whole post about the subject, but I love books which centre around a struggling mother.
I think this may be because I struggled myself when I had my two children and did not take easily to early motherhood. Now that my children are way past the baby and toddler years I find myself drawn to books which deal with Post Natal Depression and Post Natal Psychosis. Mainly because I’m safely out of those dark and stormy parental waters. I like to indulge myself in the ‘see, not everyone is a perfect mother’ frame of mind.
In Little Bandaged Days we are essentially watching one woman’s decent into extreme mental illness at the expense of the welfare and safety of her children.
Erika is a thirtysomething mother of two young children, E who is 4 and B who is a baby. She has recently moved to Geneva with her husband M in order for him to take up a new position of employment. He is often working long hours and frequently has to go away for long periods of time, leaving Erika alone in their rented apartment looking after their son and daughter.
Erika struggles from the outset with the Swiss way of life, she endeavours to keep the children quiet and lead a normal, happy family life. She cannot speak much French and so is isolated and spends most of her time cloistered away in the apartment with the children, closing the storm shutters and blocking out the world.
In the oppressive August heat, Erika builds fantasy worlds for her and her daughter to act out, she feels it must surely be ok to keep the children indoors all day if she can make a game out of it. So she invents imaginary worlds, tropical jungles in which her and E are intrepid explorers or a submarine where they travel underneath a sea full of interesting creatures. E initially laps up all this attention from her mother. What child doesn’t love inhabiting an imaginary world?
When Erika does take the children out it is most likely to run (literally) to the shop to buy essentials or to the park where they set up camp on a blanket near the water pump and play in the sand. Whilst at the park Erika often sees a woman with her own two young children who she dubs ‘Nell’ in her head. This woman seems to have her life together and looks from the outside, relaxed and happy. Erika, for her part tries hard to emulate an external picture of contentment with her little family.
When M deigns to come home after working late yet again, or returning from a business trip, Erika tries desperately to make sure everything is perfect, dinner made, his suits dry cleaned and the children quiet and content. This is not always the case and Erika is often left awaiting M’s return until way past the children’s bedtimes and long after the meal she has lovingly prepared has been spoiled.
As time goes on and Erika becomes more and more sleep deprived as a result of a demanding baby B breastfeeding most of the night, she begins to believe that there is something in the apartment. She hears noises and sees eyes in the dark, utterly convinced that there is something or someone out to harm her and her children.
As a result she secludes them all away with even more fervour. Keeping the shutters constantly pulled down and the windows locked firmly despite the searing summer heat.
What we then witness as a reader is a slow and sure descent into what can only be described as madness.
What I loved about this book was the fact that it is told in the first person perspective, so you really feel like you are trapped inside Erika’s head and spiralling down with her. You are never quite sure what is real and what is imagined which keeps you on the backfoot. I found myself thinking about what the children must be seeing and experiencing and whether at first E at least, thinks it’s all a huge fun game. Towards the end of the book there are distinct signs of how E’s feelings have changed towards her mother which only served to make you wonder what she has endured in her short life.
There is no doubt that Erika strives to be the best mother she can be. She wants the picture perfect family life. The husband who adores her and the two perfect children. Not once does she raise her voice at the children. She is infinitely patient and allows E to make mistakes without accusations or recriminations as she believes any good mother should.
Throughout the whole story the behaviour of M is called into question. There are moments where he questions the state of the apartment on his return from a trip. Or drops hints about Erika not going out with the children often enough. And yet as an outside observer I was willing him to wake up and notice just how much his wife was struggling to the detriment to his children. He really needs to open his eyes and take responsibility for that is happening to his family.
‘I need you, I need you here to help me, I said. I need you here with me in this apartment, I need you here at night. But he couldn’t hear me. He couldn’t hear me because I didn’t want him to hear me and I was saying all that into the empty coffee cup, muttering. M wasn’t speaking quietly, his words swarmed up the walls and over me, charging, and taking charge. Black ink and capital letters. Sorry, what’s that? he said, but his phone rang and he had to go….’
Erika is such a fascinating character. We know very little about her past before she had her children. Occasionally she will reminisce about an event in her early relationship with M but we get very little insight into their marriage and who they are as people. We are essentially making judgements about them through Erika’s illness and she is a hugely unreliable narrator.
The writing is at times sparse but also lyrical without being overly flowered up. I got a real Leila Slimani vibe which is a huge positive for me. Some of the sentences really resonated with me and I found myself having to go back and re-read sections and fold down pages so that I could go back to them again if I wanted to.
‘Sometimes it seemed like being a good mother, the best, meant mostly covering yourself over in a layer of smiling and smiling….’
The pacing was also perfect, from an almost dreamlike quality at the outset where there are certain small indicators that all is not as it seems, with a mounting sense of unease and dread taking us to an inevitable point where everything falls apart.
I’m trying to think whether I connected so strongly with this book because of the motherhood links. But if I’m honest I feel that whilst I don’t think this book would be everyone’s cup of tea, a huge majority of people would be able to identify with some element of it. It is such a compelling character study in its own without the motherhood aspect.
I am hugely surprised and excited to learn that this is Kyra Wilder’s debut novel. It feels so sure and strong that I find it difficult to wrap my head around the fact that this is a debut. This makes me massively excited about what she will products in the future. Whatever it is I AM THERE FOR IT!
I cannot recommend this brilliant book enough.
Thank you so much to Alice Dewing and Picador for my review copy. I will certainly be giving it a slot on my forever shelf.
See you all soon.
Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx