Reading Toby Litt’s latest novel is a gripping and moving experience…
Toby Litt chose his title well. Patience is certainly about patience in its modern sense of waiting patiently, but it also encompasses the meanings of the word’s Latin roots: suffering, long-suffering, enduring; passion, as in the Passion of Christ. And of course, when spoken aloud, patience sounds like patients; the main characters in the novel are patients in a hospice ward- children with terrible disabilities who are being looked after by nuns largely characterised by the varying degrees of patience they exhibit in dealing with their challenging young patients.
It is a gripping and moving read: I couldn’t put it down- got through it in a single day. The narrative voice, Elliott, reminded me superficially of Samuel Beckett’s immobile stoics: but where they are old men grimly declining towards the end of life, the wheelchair-bound boy Elliott, for all his frustration and pain, is optimistic; one day he hopes to be free as a wild horse in the forest. Unable to move or speak, but seeing and hearing avidly, he waits in hope; and his hope is fulfilled with the arrival of Jim, a boy who cannot see or speak, but can walk- and, above all, can push a wheelchair.
The entrapment of a lively mind caught in a crippled body is reflected in the entrapment of the children in the prison-like ward, and, through the weaponised hell-fire and damnation religion of the nuns, the entrapment of the eternal soul in the fallen, sinful clay of the flesh. On one level the novel is a critique of supernaturalist Catholicism; there is a telling conflict between the vengeful God the Father who punishes sinners and the gentle compassionate Jesus who forgives. The nuns, having voluntarily devoted their lives to the children, seem as trapped as they are; and while like Elliott, we may have doubts about their brand of religion, their portrayal is not unsympathetic. One of the strengths of the book is the way even minor characters are developed into believable people.
Elliott, although physically almost helpless, is intellectually precocious; through listening to adult conversations and radio programmes he is always discovering- with delight- new words which help him build an intelligible world out of the limited sights and sounds available to him. He is acutely sensitive to visual imagery and is able to derive enjoyment even from enforced exposure to a blank white wall, whose minor flaws and variations of shade he interprets in minute detail as if it were a monochrome painting; and he is fascinated and moved by the brilliant colours of birds which perch fleetingly on his windowsill. As for sound, Radio 3 plays a large part in his emotional development- and I was amused by and wholly understood the idea that Beethoven and Mahler open up new worlds, while Philip Glass and Vivaldi close them down. Hear, hear, Mr. Litt.
Perhaps having Tristan und Isolde occur to Elliott as he sees Jim embracing Lise the weeping girl strains credibility a little, but it’s a nice way of dealing with the first as it were stirrings of sexual consciousness. The novel is generally unflinching in its regard for the workings of the body- from nappy changing to nocturnal emissions- and does not turn away from the consequences of violence and accidental injury either: there is plenty of blood. It is not there simply for effect or to shock, however- there is a wonderful passage in which concept of the sacramental (as in the Blood of Christ) is explored as Elliott yearns to be closer to Jim.
Once they have taught one another a kind of private language- an acquaintance on the part of the reader with Beatles songs is helpful here!- the two boys become a unit emotionally and physically and the possibility of escape comes closer. But there is still one last problem of communication to overcome. I don’t want to give away a plot spoiler- the final section of the novel is almost unbearably tense- but I will say that it has to do with the frustration of the artist who creates symbols which are either misunderstood or cannot be understood at all. When you’ve read Patience come back to this page and take another look at the picture above!
For reasons best known to himself, Toby Litt has been choosing titles for his novels so far in alphabetical order, from Adventures… all the way up to Monster, if Wikipedia is to be believed; and now we have Patience. After P comes Q, so guessing the next title might be… well, anyone for a Litt-erary sweepstake? Qliphoth, Quizzical, Quietus? There’s one thing we can be fairly sure of after reading the excellent Patience, however: Litt’s next novel will be of a very high… Quality.
Patience by Toby Litt is published by Galley Beggar Press
…and since you’re here, why not have a quick look at my own latest novel? It’s available as a paperback or e-book: