The Fear

Here is my review of The Fear by Christiana Spens, published in The Irish Times on 1 April 2023.

In The Fear, Christiana Spens maps out her existential journey through a trauma-induced underworld — a demimonde of the angst-ridden mind — looking to philosophy and politics, art and writing for an “escape route”. Addicted to the all-consuming melodrama (and attendant melancholia) of toxic romances, she eventually suffers a breakdown in Paris while working as an au pair: “I opened my arms to an emptiness I could not contain”.

Having hit rock bottom, it becomes clear that these relationships are not so much doomed to fail as designed to do so. Their essential function is to subsume all her “deeper fears” in a bid to bury them.

Back in Scotland, Spens embarks upon a Master’s degree in terrorism studies — a natural choice given the personal war on terror she is waging. The Fear — this “perpetual flight or fight” mode — takes on a collective dimension at this juncture. It is, she argues, bound up with patriarchal values that rely on “terror and everyday fearfulness to persist” as evidenced, closer to home, by her enigmatic, emotionally absent, and virtually mute, father.

This book of disquiet orbits a sinister black hole that manifests itself through violent panic attacks on the London underground, however much the author strives to repress it. In a particularly poignant passage, she goes on a valiant “pilgrimage” to the suburban neighbourhood where she was raped a decade earlier.

Spens discovers how devilishly difficult it is to face up to her demons. The Fear, itself a survival strategy — a desperate attempt to “negate the pain” of an overwhelming, unbearable reality — keeps on producing new coping mechanisms and displacement activities. “I was writing about fear,” she remarks with regards to her studies, “but the writing itself was a way to avoid feeling it fully”.

The disconnection the author has felt since her assault — when “a phone line [was] cut between the mental and the physical” — is countered by the connection experienced through drawing: “Dissociation was cured by this line, this one simple act”. A similar flow state is achieved when she relates her father’s demise or her son’s birth. Gradually, art becomes “part of living” rather than a mere “solace”. Spens writes herself back to life — and it is a joy to behold.

Picture by: Sophie Davidson