The Mesmerist’s Daughter

The Mesmerist's Daughter

By Heidi James
Neon Books, 2015, 28 pages

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The Mesmerist’s Daughter, a dark, poetic novella by Heidi James, was my perfect companion one recent gloomy afternoon, transfixing me from its first lines:

My mother was a wolf. That was the first secret I kept for her. At night she would jimmy open my door with her muzzle and swagger into my bedroom, her blunt claws clicking like tarts’ heels on the floor, her panting rigid and dependable. Her thick, wiry pelt was heavy and smothering as coal gas.

The daughter, Nicola, then describes a nightly ritual in which she was devoured by her wolf-mother, leaving “just leg, leg, arms and a head. … [B]y morning I was whole again, like myself only newer and weaker.” Under the cover of a “human costume,” the mother hides her wolfishness from the larger world, and she compels Nicola to keep quiet not only about this secret but about the lies she, the mother, regularly tells, even to strangers. One of the biggest lies is that the mother is a faithful and loving wife to Nicola’s father, a trucker who spends most of his time on the road. Eventually, the pressures to keep all these secrets cause Nicola to lose her powers of speech, and her struggle to rediscover her voice—and break free of her mother—is one of the central concerns of the novella.

Nicola describes the horrors of her childhood retrospectively, from a present in which she is confined to a “home” and attended by doctors who insist that her mother wasn’t a wolf and that Nicola made up this story to protect herself. These dispatches from the present may give readers the option of doubting Nicola’s stories of her past, but it’s hard to doubt that she was traumatized by her mother and by the secrets she was made to keep. Through vivid and unsettling prose, James communicates a larger truth: for children who have suffered trauma or abuse, the wolf is always real. And, all too often, it is nearly impossible to slay.

The Mesmerist’s Daughter (winner of the 2015 Saboteur Award) is not without tenderness, however. In one of my favorite parts of the novella, Nicola tries to reconnect with her beloved father, who has died in a trucking accident. James writes about Nicola’s grief movingly and beautifully:

I took Dad’s slippers … and smelt him from his feet up. I put my hands inside them and, with my fingertips, felt the imprint of his feet, the shape of each toe, the height of his instep, the blunt ball of his heel. I traced the indent left by his private relationship with gravity. The terrible pain ripped at my throat; my chest froze solid. My dad had once taken me to the seaside; he carried me on his shoulders and bought me an ice cream, which melted quicker than I could eat it and dripped white stickiness onto the black of his hair. Now he had left me all alone.

One of the small, bittersweet comforts of the novel is that the father is made as real as the wolf.

Would My Pick be Your Pick?

If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ The stories of Angela Carter
▪ Stories or films about overcoming childhood traumas
▪ Collections like the following: Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House; Dreams in a Minor Key: Tales of Magic Realism by Women; and What Did Miss Darrington See? An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction