“When you [lack] words to make others understand your truths, you [stand] apart from the jabbering masses. You alone [possess] proof of your unique and involuted humanness, and through that, contact with something divine.”
Our ability to experience pain is what makes us human, but it is our inability to describe pain that brings us close to god. In moments of great crisis, religious rituals provide us with the right words to say. But when we turn toward what is beyond our understanding, do we do so because we feel ourselves rendered mute by trauma or because we are looking for a quick fix to our pain?
Kate Ledger’s premiere novel, Remedies, centers around Simon and Emily Bear, an affluent couple who seem incapable of saving their marriage. Simon is consumed with his work as a physician, treating patients suffering from chronic pain, and this blinds him to the growing resentment of his wife and their daughter, Jamie. A confident performer in her fast-paced career, Emily doubts her ability to be a good mother. She finds that her need to be closer to Jamie gains urgency even as Jamie resists her, and especially as she feels herself disconnecting from Simon. As their marriage and family life disintegrates, Simon and Emily reflect on their roles in the world: their careers, their marriage, their relationships with their daughter, and their unspoken pain over their son who died as a newborn.
Remedies is layered with symbolic landscapes. After the death of their infant son, Simon placed their son’s things in a box labeled “Baby.” The box sits on a shelf in the basement of the Bears’ home. Emily has never opened the box and, in fact, avoids going into the basement at all, just as she has never visited the baby’s grave, just as she and Simon avoid having any conversations about him. The basement is also the physical threshold between Simon’s home and office, an indication that Simon has compartmentalized his life, but the fact that the last physical traces of the baby are stored in that transitional space indicate that Simon’s worlds cross over in complicated ways.
Ledger creates dense domestic surfaces—the distant tone of the narration and the tendency toward sketches make this book feel chilly; Simon and Emily are so disconnected from one another, it is difficult for the reader to connect to them. Reading Remedies is something akin to visiting a national park and observing the landscape from behind a velvet rope while listening to the park ranger on your earphones. There is no opportunity to get close to anything, to touch anything. What you experience from your limited vantage point is tempered by the voice in your ears and is, unfortunately, too much like what you’ve expected to see.
Remedies ends dubiously, deus ex machina, with Simon crying in a synagogue. Frustratingly, although Ledger’s finest writing surrounds Emily in the penultimate part of the novel, what the reader learns of Emily in the final part is through Simon, in effect, shortchanging her. Ledger creates a tenuous parallelism between Simon and Emily: predictably, while Simon grieves in a synagogue, Emily, alone in her apartment, angrily stabs a painting of her lover who has returned to his ex-wife.
Though the ending gestures at resolution, nothing is actually resolved. Simon decides that he will ask Emily for her forgiveness because he feels reassured by the space of the synagogue, by common prayer: “Open Thou my lips… age-old proof the words [don’t] come easily.” As anyone who has experienced pain knows, words do not come easily, but while we muddle through our lives as we can, knowing that there is no such thing as a quick fix, Ledger’s Simon Bear unconvincingly takes a quick fix for a permanent one.