Tommy Catkins by Stephen Palmer

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Jan 22, 2008

Tommy Catkins, a young soldier of the First World War, returns to England with his nerves wrecked by his experiences of the battlefield. He is sent to a progressive hospital on Salixbury Island, where he is to be cured of his shell-shock. Two rival doctors use him as a guinea pig for their theories. However, a third faction wants Tommy for itself – the strange folk of Onderwater, a magical kingdom that Tommy glimpses in lakes and puddles around the island. As Tommy struggles to get better, the people of Onderwater reveal that they have plans for him of their own.

Stephen Palmer’s latest book is difficult to categorise: it's a historical novel, a portal fantasy, a magical realist story and an examination of the moment when mental trauma began to be treated more humanely. It isn’t an easy book to pin down, and it doesn’t have a simple ending – without giving anything away, its conclusion is both hopeful and sinister. Onderwater is enigmatic and surreal, more Lewis Carroll than J.R.R. Tolkien. It reminded me of the make-believe kingdom in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, at once charming and suggestive of a growing psychosis in the mind of its creator – or visitor.

Which isn’t to say that Tommy Catkins is hard going: the writing is clear and strong, the characters interesting. Tommy is sometimes quite passive (as you would expect) but also determined to survive. He is highly sympathetic, both as the explorer of a strange new world and as a representative of the “doomed youth” of World War One.

One of the problems with talking about well-known wars is that the – horribly real – images become cliched. The war is always off-screen in Tommy Catkins, and instead we see its effects. This, and the peaceful surroundings of Salixbury Island, make the glimpses of horror all the more powerful. For me, the most strongest moment of the book came near the middle, where we realise just how young Tommy actually is – not even a young man, but barely out of childhood. The tranquility of the island also makes the supernatural events more surprising - especially towards the end, when the line between Earth and Onderwater grows increasingly blurred.

I was also interested by the medical aspects of the book, especially the conflict between Hendriks and Snell, Tommy’s two doctors. Hendriks is influenced by Freud and, although his efforts to put Freud’s theories into practice seem bizarre, Hendriks symbolizes a new era in psychology, and the point where mental illness began to be regarded as something other than weakness and cowardice.

Tommy Catkins won't be for everyone, but I really liked its blending of historical reality and whimsical - but sinister - fantasy. It's an enjoyable and ultimately unsettling story, that (much like its hero!) defies easy analysis. Recommended.