Blair James is a Salford-based writer and PhD student who works on memory and reliability. As soon as I heard about her upcoming debut novel, Bernard and Pat, I had to read it. Bernard and Pat is a harrowing story about memory, trauma, and abuse. Written in a child-like voice and told retrospectively, Blair James' novel plays with form and language to create a compulsively heartbreaking story.
Catherine's father dies when she is only five, and with her mother at work, she and her brother James must spend increasing time with their childminders: Bernard and Pat.
But Bernard and Pat are strict, and Catherine seems to be breaking all of their rules. Why else would she feel like this? Vulnerable, wrong, confused.
Bernard and Pat are Christians. Catherine doesn't think this makes them good people.
Now an adult, Catherine retells her childhood experiences and memories, often fragmented, and constantly stuck in the voice of a child.
Catherine's voice is unforgettably chilling. Blair James puts the reader into the mind of a hurt child, almost experiencing these memories first-hand. Through this voice, you can hear the effects of these experiences on the narrator, she is unable to let go of her past both physically and mentally. Catherine's voice is angry, confused, and betrayed, whilst also being vulnerable, longing, and innocent.
"All my life I've felt everyone has always said no to me, but I cannot say no, not at all [...] and how could I say no when you were in charge? You were the adult, and I was the child. I did as I was told." (Pg. 119)
The form of the book mirrors Catherine's fragmented memory due to her trauma. Each chapter tells a memory, like puzzle pieces adding to the larger picture. Some memories last a few pages, some only a line. The reader learns the story through memory in a non-linear way, with each memory causing a domino effect to the heart of Catherine's trauma.
Blair James plays with the unreliability of memory and the brain's ability to forget, airbrush, and fill in gaps.
"It's funny how that happens. I often wonder if I remember anything at all or whether it is all made up." (Pg. 9)
Catherine is so betrayed by everyone that she cannot even trust herself. This causes a fragmented idea of self, with adult Catherine never quite sure of who she is, showing the effects of her experiences on her growth into adulthood.
"Everything I do is so contrived. So made up. So a mismatched scramble of those I emulate. So everyone else because I have no self." (Pg. 114)
"I am lost in a way that only children can feel. When the supermarket feels so big that you might never get out." (Pg. 114)
She is constantly longing for love and never receiving it. Longing for reassurance but never having it. This takes a toll on her personal development, and now she is an adult who cannot let go of this child - they are one.
"As I got older, I would wish to my mum that I could be stupid. I would say that the stupid kids at school were so happy and carefree. And I said that being smart is meant to be a good thing but I am sad and they are happy. And wouldn't it be nice to be blissfully ignorant." (Pg. 83)
I finished this book feeling moved, angry, and impressed all at once. The story is sad and I became attached to Catherine and desperately wished happiness on her. But the writing is impressive and compulsive to read, I devoured it in hours.
This debut novel is definitely one to add to your lists, and Blair James is a writer whose work is experimental, brave, and emotive.
Bernard and Pat is being published on 4th February 2021 by Corsair, an imprint of Little Brown.
Thanks for reading!