‘The Unmapped Country’ by Ann Quin

I owe the discovery of Quin to the conjunction of an interest in B.S. Johnson and an article by Lee Rourke, although as the editor of this collection, Jennifer Hodgson, has said, the  association of Quin – and other writers of the period – with Johnson may be loose at best. 

Better known, if known at all, for her debut novel Berg, the stories and fragments collected in The Unmapped Country show the work of a writer adept at a range of styles. The contents were written in the sixties and seventies, so certain details are necessarily of their time, but the writing itself feels intensely modern. 

In the titular story, Sandra finds herself in a psychiatric ward following a breakdown involving what sounds like a dissociative episode. Her lover, Clive, visits briefly and even then, only from a sense of duty. Sandra’s days are filled with interactions with the other residents and the doctors, with whom she is at odds, a situation made clear from the outset:

‘Good morning and how are we today?’
‘Bloody rotten if you must know.’
‘Why is that – tell me more?’
 Silence. Patient confronted psychiatrist. Woman and man.

Sandra’s antipathy is reasonable. In the ward her activities are scheduled like a schoolchild’s; the nursing staffs’ manner with her and the other patients is similarly infantilising and their prescribed treatment has damaged an essential part of her:

Once she had understood the language of birds, now no longer, it took all her time to understand her own language, and that of those who attempted communication… Had ECT done that – damn them?

As well as a critique of institutional care at the time, ‘The Unmapped Country’ is a model of what the short story can be: experimental yet accessible, funny and sad, everything and more. Quin herself once wrote to her publisher, ‘The short story medium is something new, exciting…’, much like the stories that make up this collection.

From The Unmapped Country, And Other Stories, 2018. ed. Jennifer Hodgson

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