Sick Part I
I first read Sick back in July 2016. It was a half-hearted summer for sun – it almost always is in the UK – but made up for by the fact that at that time I was enjoying what seemed to be the atomic boom of the independent book world. I discovered so many favourite indie authors, and many of them are still firm favourites today. For me, that was the summer which cemented a concept I already knew in my heart: that self-published authors and independent presses could easily compete for quality with the major publishing houses. As I scoured the internet for new authors doing interesting things in fantasy, horror and science fiction, I encountered Christa Wojciechowski. She’d written the novella Sick, and the blurb piqued my interest because of the way it dealt with disturbing themes in such a domestic, realistic setting. Sick stood out from the crowd, and still does, for its compellingly rich psychological insight. It stayed with me, remaining a unique point of reference. I found myself recommending it in almost every discussion I had that veered towards great books off the beaten track.
It’s hard to write a character that feels three-dimensional, rich, historied, as unpredictably human as you or I. And funnily enough, it’s the lead protagonists of most novels seem to end up being the most flat and two-dimensional of all the characters on offer. Christa Wojciechowski gives us two completely three dimensional protagonists however: Susan and John Branch. Sick is told from Susan’s viewpoint, and there’s not a single word out of place in that regard. The voice is so clear, and so distinctly realised, you’ll feel as though Susan is in the room, confiding in you in secret.
Susan and John are opposites, or appear to be: Susan is the dull, boring nurse, a plain and unremarkable woman longing for her knight in shining armour. John is flamboyant, charismatic, but physically weak and perpetually bedridden, requiring Susan’s continual attendance and care. Add to this another layer – John was from a wealthy family, used to having the silver spoon, but his fortune has been destroyed by his ill health, leaving them struggling to make ends meet in a hovel adjoining John’s old mansion (which is now owned by another family), with Susan working as hard as she can to keep them afloat. Christa brings the relationship to life with the intricate details – the pet names, the gestures, the conversational patterns, the habits – so the story feels so grounded it becomes like an undertow, inescapably gripping.
All is not as it seems in this marriage, there’s more than meets the eye. Why does the groundskeeper behave so oddly when Susan mentions John’s illnesses? How do john’s injuries manifest so quickly? And is Susan all she appears? Why does she pleasure herself at night, when she thinks John is asleep? And does John know? Early in the novella, we cotton on to the truth, but through a deft and ingenious use of dramatic irony, our viewpoint character Susan is left in the dark. Her unwillingness to confront the truth of the situation becomes an increasingly agonising tension, building until the novella reaches a startling denouement. The brevity and clarity of the novel means this ending really lands with the punch – not being clouded by the extraneous detail so often used to pad out novels to what is deemed as an ‘industry standard’ word length. Sick is distilled. It’s a shot of black vodka. And it kicks.
These characters, and their relationship, are the heart of the novel – and the portrayal of their marriage is masterfully handled. Quite simply put, you will believe in and root for these two people and the conflicts, pitfalls, triumphs and tribulations of their ‘love’ without a second thought. Christa manages to sketch a deeply troubled, mentally ill individual, whilst simultaneously holding up the mirror and demonstrating that we are all, most certainly, sick in some profound way.
Sick is really only the opening move, however. Later in 2016, Christa published Sicker – Sick Part II, a much anticipated sequel in which we learn the origins of John Branch, going deeper into his twisted mind… I’ll be reviewing that next, so stay tuned!
Sick Part II
Sick Part II is how you do a sequel. Told from the perspective of John Branch, rather than Susan, the prose is tonally worlds apart. Whereas the first book had a zest of the Gothic, Sicker fully commits, with John’s labyrinthine mind and vast intelligence unveiling a far more lyrical storytelling that seethes with undercurrents of repressed emotion. Writing from the perspective of a compelling or mysterious character is not easy, because the reader can always see through artificial charisma. But Christa carries it off seemingly effortlessly. John’s perspective is hugely entertaining to read, and leads to some incredible insights that are eminently quotable: ‘What’s normal for the spider is chaos to the fly’.
Sick Part II is principally a journey into the past, John telling his tragic story. The way this second book compliments the first is truly astonishing, as it explains so much of his thought process: revealing key events that have triggered aberrant behaviour, childhood neglects which have led to warped thinking. John should be, by all accounts, an intensely dislikeable character: he is self-pitying, self-obsessed, self-destructive and self-entitled – you might notice ‘self’ is the operative word with John – but you cannot help but warm to him when you realise the extent of damage done as a child, and even more chillingly, realise that his conclusions about how the world works are exactly the conclusions anyone would draw in his situation. There is an infallible and disturbing logic to all his actions, and this revelation is so profoundly realised. If Christa ever offered counselling sessions, I’d sign up immediately. You’d think from this book she could get to the root of anyone.
Sick Part II not only develops John, but also many of the side characters, including, perhaps most critically, his mysterious and oft-absent father – John Branch II. Sick Part II cleverly mimics Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in that it is a framed narrative (John’s first person account couched in a third person novel), containing a deeper framed narrative (the first person narrative of John’s father). As we move down through these layers, as though through the levels of consciousness itself, we get closer and closer to an awesome catharsis where we discover the truth of why the male Branchs have such a dysfunctional and unloving relationship. Buried at the heart of this is an image as iconic as that of Alexander the Great being born, amidst a river of blood, as the city of his birth lay assaulted and besieged by invaders, an image that is clearly at the heart of who John is. It left me shaking with emotion.
Though this second entry could well stand alone, the story is certainly not done by the end of it. In fact, really, the first two books have only been set up for Sick Part III which was released midway through 2017. I’ll be reviewing the third and final book soon, so keep reading!
Sick Part III
When you’ve created characters people care about in a series, ending it can be impossible. How to do them justice? How to resolve those arcs in a satisfying way? Endings are hard enough, but the weight of your reader’s time and commitment makes it even more challenging. I was concerned going into book three of the Sick series, because I knew, as a writer, how hard this can be. I needn’t have been. Christa handles the ending with a sure and steady hand. Sick Book III is the best of the series, undoubtedly. The prose is electrifying, and after a certain critical event which changes the dynamic of the relationship forever, the book becomes un-put-downable.
Both Susan and John prove that they are not tired old characters returned for a third outing, but rather living, sinuous human beings, desperately shaped by circumstance and desperate to change their fate. The two characters grow immensely, and in often unexpected ways. Christa also plays beautifully with symbolism, irony, karma, and tackles the timeless themes of death and love in original ways. Once again she proves that it is in the micro-logical, the infinitesimally small details of the piece, that we find the truth of the whole. She speaks with immense authority about medical issues, legal and police procedures, cementing the narrative as a compellingly real story, whilst also moving the story towards epic, spiritual, redemptive territory.
There are certainly shades of Shawshank Redemption in this novel in terms of its approach to character and its themes of psychological imprisonment, as well as shades of the Dallas Buyers Club in its portrayal of a slow evolution of character in the face of utter disintegration. The latter half of the book, where we shift from Susan’s perspective to John, is page-turning and harrowing. The prose style brilliantly mimics John’s mental and physical journey, paring down, stripping away ornamentation, until we are left with a naked prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy; it cuts to the core of life’s biggest questions, and resonates in a deeply moving way.
However bleak this review makes Part III, the ending is surprisingly upbeat. Christa puts her characters through the abyss and back, and in the end, she earns a hopeful flame. Although, in keeping with the rest of the series, that flame is distorted with one final, dark twist – one I honestly did not see coming.
Sick’s final gift is its last line, as Gothic as anything in Edgar Allan Poe, sending off the series and her beloved characters with a fittingly warped triumph.
Christa (Wojo) Wojciechowski is the author of The Wrong David, The Sick Series, and is working on a series called The Sculptor of New Hope. Her characters explore existential turmoil, mental illness, and the complexity of romantic love. She uses her stories to compare the dark, carnal nature of humanity with its higher qualities of creative expression and intellectualism.
Christa currently resides in the mountains of Panama with her husband and a house full of pets. She works as a freelance digital marketer and helps thought leaders, podcasters, and fellow writers develop their marketing platforms. Christa enjoys foreign movies, yoga, wine, and rambling around in the cloud forests near her home. Most of all, she’s passionate about books and writers, and loves discussing them on social media.
You can purchase copies of sick here!
You can read out interview with Christa here…
Reviews by Joseph Sale
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