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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mrs. S

K. Patrick

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To purchase Mrs. S

Title: Mrs. S
Author: K. Patrick
Genre: Novel
Written: 2023
Length: 239 pages
Availability: Mrs. S - US
Mrs. S - UK
Mrs. S - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B : impressive style and atmosphere, but not quite enough to the rest of it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 7/6/2023 Joanna Briscoe
Literary Review . 6/2023 Anthony Cummins
London Rev. of Books . 15/6/2023 Josie Mitchell
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/6/2023 Kristen Arnett
The Observer . 9/7/2023 Hephzibah Anderson
The Telegraph A 30/5/2023 Lucy Scholes
The Times . 7/6/2023 John Self
TLS . 9/6/2023 James Cahill

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mrs S promises classic hothouse drama then segues into an experiment with form that frequently converts expectation to bemusement. (...) With its suppressed yearning, erotic tension and search for the “self”, the book is essentially a lengthy prose poem that will delight some readers and alienate others. Mrs S is inventive and original in many ways, and very much of its time in others: reflective, solipsistic, essentially plotless. But Patrick at their best is a powerful prose writer, with dense, intense yet pared-back descriptions" - Joanna Briscoe, The Guardian

  • "K Patrick’s first novel embraces and then toys with our expectations of the lesbian romance. (...) This is not a novel full of euphemism or implication. (...) Instead of labels, Patrick’s novel is attentive to gesture, to the physical acts that make a person appear masc or butch or camp or subby, and the book is filled with close descriptions of movement. (...) The absence of speech markers from Patrick’s prose means that it’s often unclear who has spoken, or if anyone has spoken at all. At first this blurring is hard to follow, and some readers may lose patience, but over the course of the book one can attune to the uncertainty of the flickering double exposure. (...) If the novel shakes up its static, old-fashioned world with its horniness, the story remains a familiar one." - Josie Mitchell, London Review of Books

  • "In Mrs. S, the debut novel by the Glasgow author K. Patrick, bodies exist as a site of ongoing construction. Perhaps this is because our protagonist does not know how she feels about the particular body that she inhabits. And the questions that crop up because of that unknowing make for an entirely captivating read. (...) Patrick’s staccato sentences add a layer of choppy, additional drama to the text. It becomes a secondary language for butchness, powerful and confident; flowery description unnecessary." - Kristen Arnett, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) striking queer romance in which lust yields subtle revelations about sexual power and selfhood. (...) (T)he narrative is stripped of names and dates. Is it set in the late 80s? Possibly. Such sustained opacity -- with an absence of speech marks -- could easily become a distraction, but Patrick compensates by pinning down with sensual specificity the episodes that shape the narrator’s evolving self." - Hephzibah Anderson, The Observer

  • "The tension between wanting and not wanting to be seen runs through the novel like a taut steel rope. (...) Patrick is able to use language to evoke smell – to evoke all the senses –with a luxurious affluence. In less adroit hands, Mrs S might feel like sensory overload. Instead, it’s almost alchemical: sounds can be touched, sight is transformed into taste. Narrated in the first person, and without any quotation marks to indicate speech -- whether that of the narrator or her interlocutors -- consciousness runs into action, into conversation, into description, all of it rich, molten and fluid. The feeling of torpor lingers, a thick, slick haze of sex, heat and queer female desire. (...) Patrick clearly loves language, but more importantly, also knows exactly what to do with it." - Lucy Scholes, The Telegraph

  • "This is a story in which clichés -- of genre, of identity -- disintegrate under pressure. (...) From the first page Patrick’s prose has a lapidary quality. Phrases fall like beats. (...) Indeed, the intimacy and suppleness of Patrick’s writing mark it out from the stripped-clean default of much contemporary fiction. (...) The sex scenes are masterly in their combination of detail and omission. (...) Lacking firm anchorage in time or place, the story turns on the tension (or inextricable dynamic) between personae and inner selves." - James Cahill, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The unnamed narrator of Mrs. S is a young Australian who has come to work at an English girls' boarding school -- promised: "A visa, a true English experience, a dead author" (the latter a famous writer associated with the school). Her official job title here is 'matron' but everyone simply calls her (and treats her as) 'Miss'. Back home, she had come out as gay -- leaving her father unwilling to talk to her anymore and her mother trying her best to ignore this information, reasons enough for her to travel away, half way around the world.
       The Mrs. S of the title is the wife of the headmaster, and she and her husband are the closest we get to any of the characters being named. Even the students are just 'The Girls', and any individual one of them just a Girl; the closest Miss gets to making a friend is with the (also lesbian) Housemistress. Late on, Miss writes of Mrs. S's: "game, never to name anything, as if she can slip so easily from her own reality", and it's all in fitting with this place which Miss never really gets a firm handle on. So too her job is as a kind of floater, helping out when called upon but with few actually defined duties. As she herself puts it: "I just go where I am told".
       Miss is rather at sea in this place -- and finds herself then drawn to Mrs. S. Even when their relationship becomes intimate, it comes as a late revelation to her that Mrs. S might have similarly passionate feelings -- "I thought I was alone, that I had lured her in". She also senses from early on the simultaneous push and tug: "Loving her will be impossible. There's nothing I can do to stop it".
       The boarding school makes for an atmospheric backdrop to a novel that drips with atmosphere. From the nearby graveyard to the many reminders of the dead author to, of course, adolescent girls doing all the things girls their age do, it's an environment in which Miss finds her own uncertainties reïnforced at every turn. The Housemistress tries to pull her out of this a bit, but can't offer more than drink or an expedition to the nearest gay bar. Meanwhile, calls to her mother back home remind Miss of how out of place she is there.
       Patrick shows a nice command of style, the novel written in often short sentences, the undifferentiated dialogue often woven in, as in:

     Her hand on the gear stick. No nail varnish, no bracelet. Earrings, gold studs. I notice a second hole, grown over. She touches her earlobe. Always on the lookout. Ah yes, from my younger days. When you were a painter ? She laughs, avoids the question. Nothing is given away easily.
     Moody out there. It's nice. You like a storm ? I don't think it's quite a storm, not yet, no rain. No wind either. A bloated stillness. The stained glass is stern in the failing light.
       It pulls along and impresses -- for a while; it can also get quite exhausting, in a novel in which the action is fairly limited. Things happen -- a nose and a stained glass window are broken, some Girls get drunk (as does Miss), and others take some mushrooms; a Lorca play is prepared and staged. And, of course, Miss and Mrs.S have a rather passionate affair.
       It's almost all style and atmosphere -- well done, too, but ultimately, along with Miss' own uncertainties, the sense of indefiniteness -- reïnforced by the patter-drone of Miss' telling -- overpowers the novel. Much of that is clearly also intentional -- not least the mentions of the indefiniteness of gender, with Miss' breast-flattening "binder" to the playing with penis-substitute dildos --, but, for all the finely-wrought detail of the novel and Miss at least finding a bit of herself in her relationship with Mrs. S, it isn't, as a whole, entirely satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 June 2023

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Mrs. S: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author K. Patrick lives in Scotland.

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© 2023 the complete review

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