By Joseph Sale – I first read Sick back in July 2016. It was a half-hearted summer for sun – it almost always is in the UK – but made up for by the fact that at that time I was enjoying what seemed to be the atomic boom of the independent book world. I discovered so many favourite indie authors, and many of them are still firm favourites today. For me, that was the summer which cemented a concept I already knew in my heart: that self-published authors and independent presses could easily compete for quality with the major publishing houses. As I scoured the internet for new authors doing interesting things in fantasy, horror and science fiction, I encountered Christa Wojciechowski. She’d written the novella Sick, and the blurb piqued my interest because of the way it dealt with disturbing themes in such a domestic, realistic setting. Sick stood out from the crowd, and still does, for its compellingly rich psychological insight. It stayed with me, remaining a unique point of reference. I found myself recommending it in almost every discussion I had that veered towards great books off the beaten track.
It’s hard to write a character that feels three-dimensional, rich, historied, as unpredictably human as you or I. And funnily enough, it’s the lead protagonists of most novels seem to end up being the most flat and two-dimensional of all the characters on offer. Christa Wojciechowski gives us two completely three dimensional protagonists however: Susan and John Branch. Sick is told from Susan’s viewpoint, and there’s not a single word out of place in that regard. The voice is so clear, and so distinctly realised, you’ll feel as though Susan is in the room, confiding in you in secret.
Susan and John are opposites, or appear to be: Susan is the dull, boring nurse, a plain and unremarkable woman longing for her knight in shining armour. John is flamboyant, charismatic, but physically weak and perpetually bedridden, requiring Susan’s continual attendance and care. Add to this another layer – John was from a wealthy family, used to having the silver spoon, but his fortune has been destroyed by his ill health, leaving them struggling to make ends meet in a hovel adjoining John’s old mansion (which is now owned by another family), with Susan working as hard as she can to keep them afloat. Christa brings the relationship to life with the intricate details – the pet names, the gestures, the conversational patterns, the habits – so the story feels so grounded it becomes like an undertow, inescapably gripping.
All is not as it seems in this marriage, there’s more than meets the eye. Why does the groundskeeper behave so oddly when Susan mentions John’s illnesses? How do john’s injuries manifest so quickly? And is Susan all she appears? Why does she pleasure herself at night, when she thinks John is asleep? And does John know? Early in the novella, we cotton on to the truth, but through a deft and ingenious use of dramatic irony, our viewpoint character Susan is left in the dark. Her unwillingness to confront the truth of the situation becomes an increasingly agonising tension, building until the novella reaches a startling denouement. The brevity and clarity of the novel means this ending really lands with the punch – not being clouded by the extraneous detail so often used to pad out novels to what is deemed as an ‘industry standard’ word length. Sick is distilled. It’s a shot of black vodka. And it kicks.
These characters, and their relationship, are the heart of the novel – and the portrayal of their marriage is masterfully handled. Quite simply put, you will believe in and root for these two people and the conflicts, pitfalls, triumphs and tribulations of their ‘love’ without a second thought. Christa manages to sketch a deeply troubled, mentally ill individual, whilst simultaneously holding up the mirror and demonstrating that we are all, most certainly, sick in some profound way.
Sick is really only the opening move, however. Later in 2016, Christa published Sicker – Sick Part II, a much anticipated sequel in which we learn the origins of John Branch, going deeper into his twisted mind… I’ll be reviewing that next, so stay tuned!
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