On the surface, Christopher Bollas’ novel I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing is right up my alley. It has a dark, comedic tone. It follows an older psychoanalyst (never known to the reader as anything but “the psychoanalyst”) as he questions all he has learned throughout his career. It also probes into the area of depression and medication, which both are issues near and dear to my heart. With all that going for it, I still could not truly get into the book and I never got that feeling. You know the one, when you become completely immersed in a book and you can hardly set it down, and if you do have to put it down, you can’t wait to pick it up again? Well, that feeling never came - in any small degree.
For the first half of the book, the reader follows the psychoanalyst as he meanders here and there, talking to acquaintances, recalling why he rarely, if ever, looks in the mirror these days, listens to his patients, and more frequently, thinks about depression and medication. My favorite, absolute favorite, part of this book was the name of the drug most prescribed to help: Napalmtek™. He’s beginning to think that people are shirking their responsibility for their actions and thoughts and blaming it on depression. He’s beginning to see signs that the majority of people are actually addicted to being depressed. It’s as these newfound theories are taking shape that a new patient comes to see the good doctor.
After questioning and re-questioning the confidentiality agreement between the patient and the psychoanalyst, the new patient reveals that he is supposed to be a suicide bomber but is having issues with making peace within himself to the point where he can fulfill this deadly destiny. Here you would think that the book might get exciting, but alas, it continues down the same ho-hum path it had taken up to that point.
The psychoanalyst debates for a long while, researches the oaths and rules of being a psychoanalyst and even poses the situation, in a hypothetical manner, to a trusted colleague. When the would-be terrorist comes in for his next appointment, the good doctor is still not exactly sure what he should do. What he does do, and how he handles the potentially deadly situation is purely accidental and leads to many more philosophical self-debates and the measurement of ethics.
I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing comes so close to being something I would normally love. It definitely isn’t spoon-fed to the reader. It is a character-driven story, and makes the reader think and reason and ponder the state of things as they are in our world today. Alas, it bored me to near tears, and I had a very hard time actually finishing it, kept finding myself putting it down to pick up something else only to come back to it when my preferred reads were too far away, or the pile was dwindling.
Final thoughts: Though it wasn’t a total waste, the writing is solid, intelligent, and there were a few “chuckle” moments, I will not, can not recommend this book.