Maud Casey, the author of “The Man Who Walked Away” is a capable writer. The historic fictional account of the psychiatric treatment of Albert Dadas by Dr. Philippe Tissié in 19th Century France is creative. It is a fictionalized account of a patient who compulsory traveled on foot through Europe, Turkey and Russia seemingly without a rational purpose.
“For this man, it appears travel is a broken shard that has lodged inside of him, causing him not to be so much consumed by an obsession to pursue travel as consumed by travel itself. Travel, from the word travail, bodily or mental labor or toil of a painful, oppressive nature. From the Old French travail, suffering or trouble. In German “tearing free.” Travel, from the Latin word for a three-pronged stake.”
Albert is looking for a place to rest. A home. Having lost his relatives he is taken in at an asylum, which progressively provides those with mental illness, freedom to be themselves without hurting others. Each have a compulsion and fear, sometimes assuage by each other. At times they are lost in oblivion, but as Ms. Casey writes, “the problem with oblivion is it doesn’t last.” There is some serenity and love of life within Albert, despite being confronted by the prejudice of those who are rational. This is the story of an invisible life, where even the treating doctor is fragile.
The idea for this novel was Ian Hacking’s Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness. Ms. Casey’s book is more character study than plot driven. For me, though readable, it was an exercise in prose. Ms. Casey interposed musical references throughout, with Rachel, a patient, playing classical pieces in concert with her illness. She reminds us of the dual meaning of fugue. Musically a composition with a repetitive and increasingly complex theme. Psychologically, dissociative fugue, which is reversible amnesia for identity that may include unplanned traveling or wandering. This is apparently Albert’s condition. He was treated, unsuccessfully, through hypnosis.
At times I believe writers enjoy doing the research for their book more than they enterprise of writing it. Ms. Casey has a voice that is perhaps philosophical or science oriented. Here her prose is strong, but not so extraordinary to satisfy the reader with a snapshot of plot. The book is good, but given the wealth of reading choices it may not be enough for all readers.