What We Did In The Dark

Written by Ajay Close
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

Catherine MacFarlane Carswell (1879-1946) was a novelist, biographer of Robert Burns, and journalist who, though she excelled in her studies at Glasgow University, could not, as a woman, be awarded a degree. In her sixth novel, Close tells the story of Carswell’s first marriage, to a Boer War veteran and artist, Herbert Jackson, stealthily detailing his mental unravelling and her subsequent struggle to annul their union. Exquisitely written, the novel succeeds in being both a love story and a thriller, with language and imagery that takes the reader right into the moment: a secretary cleaning her typewriter keys with methylated spirits, a thatched roof looking like “an ill-fitting wig”.

The story is told predominantly from Cathie’s point of view (yet she does not spare herself), but is also interspersed with flashbacks, through Jackson’s war letters. Here the atrocities committed by the British against Boer women and children are told in unflinching detail in a crescendo of horror; this reader’s heart started beating faster each time a new one appeared. Cathie marries Herbert in haste, amidst the deafening silence of those who already knew of his mental dissolution, but for whom it was convenient to say nothing. Through a protracted Italian honeymoon, Jackson’s always articulate paranoia increases to the point that Cathie’s life is in danger. However, if she is to be free, even at the cost of illegitimising their daughter, Cathie must prove that her husband was mentally incapable at the time of their marriage. Yet Close’s skill is such that the reader empathises also with Herbert in his derangement. This is an enthralling read. Put everything else aside.