by Jae De Wylde
The Thinking Tank is a novel I enjoyed reading a few years ago. I have just finished it for the second time. Set partly in Rutland, England’s smallest county, in the present day (well, 2003), it is a story of relationships and family secrets. The principle character, Sarah, suffers from RSD (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy) and is being treated with Hyperbaric Therapy – hence the “tank” of the title. She suffers a lot of pain and has to walk with a stick. Her main carer is her daughter Rebecca, who holds down a night job in a club, but their relationship is at tipping point. At the hospital, Sarah is attended by nurse Sue. During the hours she spends in the oxygen chamber, she watches movies and has plenty time to look back on her life and think about her mistakes. She worries about Rebecca too, and about the choices she is making.
In a parallel narrative, we read the story of Sally, a girl living in London in the late nineteen-sixties. At Christmas, she visits Father Christmas at a church fair and sits on the lap of the man wearing the costume. He is a young policeman called Simon. Sally becomes infatuated with Simon and he abuses her trust for his sexual gratification. As the years pass, the relationship becomes more and more intimate until the inevitable happens. Now fifteen, Sally is taken out of school by her unsympathetic parents and sent to live with three elderly aunts “in the country”.
‘If she could voice it, what [Sally] would say is simply this: “I am amazed that someone like Simon fancies me. If I object to what he is doing I am scared he’ll go off me, and then I’ll have missed my chance.” ‘
Sue persuades Sarah to reconnect with her past via Friends Reunited (a real website back in the early noughties). Sarah does so and renews her acquaintance with Simon (the fifth “S” in the novel), a friend of her youth. Simon too has relationship problems. He has split from his wife Paola and their son, who are now living in Spain with a wealthy Englishman. Stephen wants Paola back and persuades Sarah to pretend to be his girlfriend.
The Thinking Tank touches on several interesting themes: for example, predatory sexual behaviour, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, religious hypocracy and coping with long-term illness. There were times during my second reading when I detected the whiff of “unreality” in some of the narrative. It made me wonder why I hadn’t noticed before, or considered the possibility of there being an unreliable narrator. But then I half remembered how the plot resolved and decided the problem was with my interpretation.
‘With the word “jealousy”, Stephen turns away with the suggestion of a shrug, but not before I catch the hint of a blush in the shaft of the day’s first light across his face. “There’s nothing to make up for. What were you to know and what were you to do back then.” ‘
How the Sarah and Sally timelines converge is a crucial element of the novel, though it doesn’t turn out quite in the way the reader might expect (this reader anyway). Both protagonists have to face crises, and how they come (came) through makes a very satisfactory story, with a very twisty ending. Being aware of that convergence, and of that ending, did not spoil the second reading of the book. One thing that struck me this time is how differently present tense narrative can be used by an author to slow down – or speed up – the passing of time.
As I wrote when I reviewed this book five years ago, The Thinking Tank is not a novel I would normally have picked up. However, I happened to meet the author in Waterstone’s bookshop at a promotion and after a chat with her about the setting – which is one I know well – took a copy home.
The Thinking Tank is beautifully written. There is some very nice descriptive prose, and likeable – and some not so likeable – characters. There is unexpected humour too. Jae De Wylde does not draw back from the theme of child sexual abuse and its consequences, but she handles it with sensitivity. In spite of the continual switch between storylines and the different way in which Jae de Wylde handles them, the story flows smoothly throughout.
You can research Hyperbaric Therapy here.