“The insane are always mere guests on earth,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to his daughter, “eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”
Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, was at the time a resident of Highland Hospital in Asheville, undergoing treatment for schizophrenia. In 1948, she and eight other women would die in a mysterious fire in the locked ward reserved for the hospital’s sickest patients. Their tragic deaths have long haunted novelist Lee Smith. Her new novel, “Guests on Earth,” imaginatively re-creates the world of Highland Hospital in the years leading up to the fire.
Narrator Evalina Toussaint is only 13 when, orphaned and grieving her mother’s suicide, she is sent to live at Highland. Under the direction of Dr. Robert Carroll, the hospital offers its “guests” an innovative program of exercise, diet, hiking, gardening, games, art, music, dance and theater in addition to the more conventional therapies of the day, such as insulin shock.
In the art studio, Evalina makes paper dolls with Zelda Fitzgerald. Childlike in tights and ballet slippers, Zelda is ferociously creative – a painter, dancer, choreographer, writer. She is also mercurial, charming one instant, cruel the next. “At that time,” Evalina says, “Mrs. Fitzgerald was quite mad.”
Though the “announced subject” of Evalina’s narrative, Zelda is but one character in a vast ensemble that includes Dixie, a damaged Southern belle; Amanda, a young wife pretending to be catatonic to escape her violent husband; the lively beauty Jinx, who has been labeled a “moral imbecile” and sterilized by the state; and Robert, a fragile, brilliant boy who loves and is overwhelmed by the world.
Evalina – who, despite her traumatic history, is not mentally ill – is more than mere witness. “Guests on Earth” is, at its center, her story, the memoir of a fictional character whose experience not only intersects but also in many ways resembles the real life of Zelda Fitzgerald, illuminating “the very thin line between sanity and insanity.”
Like Zelda, Evalina is creatively gifted, a piano prodigy. Thanks to the largesse of Dr. Carroll and his wife, a renowned concert pianist, Evalina is able to pursue her music studies in Baltimore, and goes on to become the accompanist and fiancée of internationally famous tenor Joseph Nero, a flamboyant man who uses her badly.
Joey’s drinking and infidelity take their toll, and Evalina lands again at Highland, this time on the top floor of the Central Building, receiving insulin shock treatments that erase her short-term memory – a loss that leaves Evalina wondering if the cure justifies the treatment.
Amnesia in a first-person narrative can be discombobulating; here, it occasions some of the book’s most evocative writing. Evalina describes a fellow shock patient: “Beneath the perfect, arched brows, her wide violet eyes were flat and dead. … Her eyes were like the eyes of the fish laid out in rows on ice in the French Market in New Orleans, down by the river, where I went with my mother in the past, some time ago. In the past. My who? My mother, in the past, some time ago.”
With “Guests on Earth,” Lee Smith shines new light on a shadowy, complex subject. Smith says she always knew she would write this book, and she is uniquely qualified. Both her father and her son were patients at Highland. She has written eloquently about her son’s mental illness and treatment (“Goodbye to the Sunset Man,” The Independent Weekly, Oct. 12, 2004). Now, on the 10th anniversary of his death, she offers a broader historical perspective – and with it, a captivating, inimitable voice.
Church is a Raleigh attorney and writer whose debut novel, “Byrd,” will be published in March.