Fay is a textile artist and her ex husband Magnus is a former bomb disposal officer who suffers PTSD. They are in a pretty awful place both in their relationship and in their practical circumstances. It’s made clear from the start that Magnus has mental health issues. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Because Untying the Knot contains much more to the narrative than simply a compelling plot line. Certainly the plot cracks along and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep you reading. But this is so much more than a standard so called ‘womens novel’ Gillard never writes down for women. She doesn’t stereotype or romanticise or sugarcoat her story. Untying the Knot works on a number of levels. The surface story is enough to keep people reading, but the depths are there if one wants to explore.
It would be crass to simply claim that ‘madness’ is at the core of the story. Gillard hints at this by showing that madness isn’t always what it seems and love isn’t always enough. There are more perspectives on madness than is first suggested but more comment than that would be a spoiler so I’ll not pursue that line further. Tackling mental health and love in one novel is enough of a challenge, but keeping it ‘real’ is even more of one and yet this is what she achieves time and again.
It’s a sign of her mastery of the novel form that Gillard manages to pull off something quite difficult in her character creation. While they all are recognisable characters (just like you and me perhaps, a bit ordinary and certainly not stock aspirational romantic fiction characters) at times the reader just wants to shout at or shake the characters to tell them to act differently! Daring to write characters like this is brave. And it works. Beautifully. Our hopelessness in seeing how they may be mucking up their own lives is reflected back at us and each time the characters ‘muck up’ or become ‘irrational’ in their actions or choices, the reader is forced to assess that yes, this is how we all act in the real world. We all want to say one thing but say another. We all lie and hide truth and pretend that we don’t love when we do, or do love when we don’t. We gain empathy for the characters through a shared recognition of humanity not through some romantic idealised aspirational desire.
In Untying the Knot, love is central but it’s not fictional romance where a happy ending is assured. Gillard’s take on love is much more complicated than that, much more real and this is the power at the core of the novel. Its reality. All the characters are flawed, all narrators unreliable and everyone’s story can be seen from more than one perspective. The sympathy or empathy one feels for the characters is precisely because of their realistic flaws. It’s what keeps them interesting. They are as frustrating as real friends. They are inconsistent, you feel they would never listen to the sage advice you would give them, and often they work against their own best interests. Just like real people!
The seemingly simple narrative is shot through with darker and deeper elements such as irrationality, fear and pain and the overwhelming understanding that this is how people feel. Gillard shows that life and relationships are a tangle and you have to work your way through it the best you can. And that sometimes you are your own worst enemy. The reality of all these observations, even coated in a fictional story, are enough to make this an interesting and thought provoking read.
Untying the Knot is available in Amazon Kindle format
Find out more about Linda Gillard here