There has been a recent spate of particularly good novels that dissect women’s psychological wellbeing, including Meg Mason’s captivating account of undiagnosed mental health issues in Sorrow and Bliss and Gail Honeyman’s thoughtful examination of deep depression in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Australian writer Emily Spurr follows in these literary footsteps with her second book, Beatrix & Fred, a weird and quite wonderful novel that explores the way in which a lonely and isolated middle-aged woman, the eponymous Beatrix, grapples with her fragile sense of self.
Beatrix is an anxious, hostile, lonely mess who has alienated most of her co-workers and spends her evenings drinking herself into a stupor. As her story unfolds, Spurr elevates the discussion about mental health by exploring connections between mind and body – a kind of Aristotelian quest to understand the very nature of humanity. And if that sounds a bit intense, the tone of the novel is regularly lightened by a personable mental health chat bot that appears to have moments of very human-like cognisance.
When we first meet Beatrix, she has positioned herself precariously close to the edge of a station platform, listening to the whine of an approaching train and contemplating a leap into the unknown. As she starts to fall, there is “A spinning through air, breath catching, bright inky-pulses blooming in her skull, and Beatrix is pulled back, damp hair lifting, the platform blurring.” Peevish and ungrateful, Beatrix continues with her day but her rescuer, an enigmatic elderly woman called Fred, is not done with Beatrix yet; she starts showing up at random moments, playfully trying to attract her attention.
Fred’s relentless pursuit escalates Beatrix’s anxiety. However, with a quiet persistence, Fred reels in her quarry and the two reach an accommodation of sorts.
The deeper link between Fred and Beatrix is a well-paced reveal, told in their distinct, alternating voices: Beatrix’s brittle voice maintains the story’s momentum and Fred’s narrative is presented in enigmatic epistolary fragments that sometimes verge on the fantastical. The different accounts sit elegantly alongside each other: Fred’s ethereal voice provides occasional relief from Beatrix’s relentless self-destruction and Beatrix’s plot-driven narrative ensures that the action never falters.
And there is a lot of action. Beatrix & Fred is a wild ride; what starts out as the curious story of an unlikely friendship turns into a mind-bending exploration that takes on, among other things, psychological fitness and wellbeing, perimenopause, brain health, cosmic mysteries, parasites, entomology and differing forms of consciousness.
Throughout, Spurr’s writing is vivid and energetic and for all of Beatrix’s prickliness, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for her vulnerabilities, to appreciate her dry wit, her tenderness and her curiosity. There are laugh-out-loud moments, too, mostly during Beatrix’s tart yet moving conversations with “Bot”, the mental health chatbot. Bot is a handy device for revealing Beatrix’s deteriorating state of mind, but is an engaging character in its own right, always ready with advice reminding Beatrix to do a sudoku, watch her caffeine intake or practise radical acceptance.
Beatrix & Fred is a multi-layered book rippling with mystery. The puzzles keep coming right until the end: the final section of the book is called “Comprehension”, but even after reading the section three times I’m still not sure I fully comprehended the conclusion. Ultimately, though, this didn’t matter; the sense of possibility, grace and hope that the novel ends on brings its own splendid rewards.