Bina (“that’s Bye-na, not Bee-na”) isn’t a woman who’s interested in “mithering,” “standing about,” or otherwise making small talk. The seventy-four-year-old from western Ireland is quick to note that she is a very busy woman—one who spent a week in prison and is now facing fourteen more years of incarceration for “aiding, abetting or counselling” in the deaths of an untold number of people. As she awaits her trial, Bina writes her story on envelopes, receipts, and other scraps of paper, intent on explaining how and why she got into this unfortunate position.
Bina’s entries are oblique and evasive. She can’t go into much detail lest it be used as evidence against her. Her notes can also be erratic, like her repeated warnings against certain days of the week (Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays). But, as the fragments accumulate, they reveal that Bina was involved in an activist group that gave sick and elderly people assistance with suicide, and one of the deaths that she is now charged in relation to is that of her best friend, Philomena, or Phil—though responsibility for that particular killing is something that Bina is quick to deny.
Throughout the eponymous novel, written by Anakana Schofield, Bina predicts that the authorities and the courts will warp the story of her mercy killings, and she sees her notes as the only chance to preserve her own truth for whatever posterity might be afforded to it. She also appears to be losing her memory, so her entries about her past serve a practical function as well. More importantly, Bina sees her writings as a way to make herself useful to others. She compiles this memoir as a collection of “warnings” so other women won’t suffer as she has suffered: “I’ve made all these mistakes for you,” she writes.
Fictional depictions of a trauma-afflicted mind tend to be experimental by nature, and Schofield’s latest is no different. Bina highlights the effects of suffering and abuse on an individual psyche, following thoughts as they bounce between fear, guilt, and forgetfulness. As the reader pieces the story together, it becomes apparent that a lifetime of experience has led Bina to conclude that great harm to oneself is often caused by trying to help others, even when one acts with the best of intentions. All she has left is to share this wisdom. “If I do nothing else in these warnings,” Bina writes, “I will train you to say no.”
Anakana Schofield, forty-eight, has made a literary career on the psychology of troubled minds. The Irish Canadian author’s debut, Malarky, winner of the 2012 Amazon First Novel Award, centered on an older woman debilitated by grief. To research Martin John, her 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted second novel about a compulsive groper and his mother, she studied Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s foundational Psychopathia Sexualis. To craft her titular character’s voice, she employed a linguistic pattern of circular thoughts and associations, effectively building his internal instability into the text.
In Bina, which acts as a spiritual sequel to these earlier works, Schofield turns to the protective instincts that victims develop to make sense of the past and shield against future suffering. From Bina’s telling, men enter into her life as though to intentionally wreak havoc, only to step out again when consequences are afoot. She drops hints about the person who initiated her into the assisted-suicide group—a seemingly sociopathic individual she simply refers to as “the Tall Man”—and warns her reader to “worry about the civilized types / On Tuesdays.” The majority of Bina’s ire, though, is directed at a young man named Eddie, who crashed his motorbike near her home. “I’m warning you not to lift men out of ditches,” she says, and readers soon gather that she once did exactly that, allowing Eddie to move into her home as he recuperated. But Eddie stuck around for another ten years, becoming something of a rotten surrogate son.
Bina recounts Eddie’s many misdeeds over the decade: he hit her, locked her cat in a room without food for two days, leeched off her finances (by begging or stealing, depending on how you see it), and killed four of her ducks (backed over by a trailer). “I was trapped inside my home with a violent man. . . . And the bald, uncomfortable truth that not only had I invited him in, I’d physically conducted him in,” she writes. Eddie left around the time Bina became the subject of a police investigation, but he’s still in touch to demand money. Bina’s constant fears about whether he’ll return seem more requisite than paranoid.
Schofield’s biggest risk lies in voicing the book the way she does. Bina’s mind is hyperactive, full of repetitions, obsessive ruminations, and blank spaces—she remembers the day of the week she met Eddie (Tuesday) but cannot recall how to use a bank card. Whether these gaps are caused by trauma or dementia, however, is never made explicit. Her language, which displays the incessant uneasiness that remains in the traumatized consciousness long after the abuse itself has occurred, flits between the whimsical, the poetic, and the outright confusing. Due to its associative, errant routes to meaning, her fear produces wordplay, as seen in her early, vague description of the Tall Man: “It was dark, remember. It is also a dark remember, so I need to get this written out quick, lest I lose my courage to record it.” Then there are the aphoristic phrases, variations of which she can’t help but repeat: “Men stay on the mat / Don’t let them in / In means din.”
Bina’s patterns of misremembering and epiphany sometimes resemble those of the speaker in Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Not I. That unnamed narrator, seen as a floating mouth on an otherwise blacked-out stage, delivers a disjointed monologue about a childhood of neglect and loneliness that led to years of silence. The sudden flash of this voice recalling what it felt like to finally burst into speech brings to mind Bina’s flashbacks to her time with Eddie: “Anytime I hear that name I take a jolt. There was a dog passing recent and I thought I heard a voice call out Eddie. I ran inside and hid in my bed. . . . And I waited. I waited to hear Eddie’s gorsy tones. Nothing. That was when I realized Eddie had gone to my head.”
I’m not the first to compare Schofield’s work to Beckett’s—in a 2016 Irish Times interview, Schofield noted that she stopped reading the modernist (barring his letters) to avoid “succumbing to his influence”—but the difference between the two works, in this case, is instructive. The voice of Beckett’s restless narrator is powerful because it provides no relief, whereas Bina’s fears and recollections are often cut through with the banal and confusing world of her present, such as her digressions about the annoying legion of young activists (or “Crusties”) that has set up camp outside her home to show support. These regular asides dilute the urgency of the story and separate the narrative into layers, some of which are less compelling than others. Suffering may be something Bina knows intimately, but translating a life story through such an unreliable and inconsistent narrator may be an impossible task.
If Bina and Phil feel familiar to previous Schofield readers, it’s because they’ve met them before. Phil is the protagonist in Malarky, where she struggles with her husband’s infidelity and her son’s decision to enlist in the army. After landing in the hospital, struck with grief, she relies on Bina for comfort and support. In that book, Bina, with her characteristic fierceness, leaves no doubt she’d sneak Phil out of the ward if necessary: “We’ve to be sly about this,” she says to Phil then. “You’ve to tell the nurse on the QT I’m yer sister, any form needing signing is only to be signed by me.”
On the surface of this latest novel, Bina and Phil’s friendship seems just as love filled as ever, and it’s presented as an emotional antidote to Bina’s relationship with Eddie. However, as Bina continues to write, it becomes clear that the two women’s friendship was not unfettered by pain. When Phil discovered Bina’s activism, she asked her friend for help in taking her own life. Though Bina has hinted at her involvement with many suicides and is quick to justify those actions, she rejected Phil’s request. Phil kept on asking, and Bina demurred time and again, until, one day, she finally appears to have acquiesced. “She had promised that when Phil said she’d had enough, she would believe her. / She does believe her. / She just doesn’t want to.” Though Phil ultimately succeeded in killing herself, the role that Bina actually played remains murky. “I did put the idea inside her head / By confiding to her what I had done,” she admits, but exactly how far her culpability extends remains unsaid. Whenever Bina gets close to the specifics of Phil’s death, she is quick to halt: “Stop Bina. / Stop it. / If you write out everything you think / They’ll think it’s everything you did. / Rather than everything you thought about doing.”
At times like this, the novel’s constant cat-and-mouse game with simple plot points can be frustrating. On the few occasions when a key piece of information is delivered directly, it is easy for the reader to mistake relief for pleasure. Because Schofield employs so much narrative evasion, compelling her readers to constantly search for the basic foundation of the story between the lines of Bina’s musings, the nuanced feelings and moral complexities around her friendship with Phil blur and lose significance.
Still, there are some signs of how Phil’s end has affected Bina’s outlook on life. It’s telling that most of the broad warnings that Bina delivers throughout the novel have as much to do with her best friend as they do with the likes of Eddie and the Tall Man: “Do not open your heart,” she writes. “Say No.” “Practise saying No.”