Manipulated Lives, Leuschel’s collection of long short stories, explores the many angles the manipulation of power can take within relationships. Leuschel establishes unnerving narratives which make for compulsive reading. Her research has evidently been thorough and she explores the psychological impact of emotional manipulation on those caught up in damaging relationships. In most of the stories, narcissism and a need for power form the driving motivations of those in control – drawn out most explicitly in Runaway Girl with the deeply unsavoury teenage Luke – but in the final piece, My Perfect Child, Leuschel also moves into the interesting and complex area of upbringing and parental responsibility.
There are many victims in this collection, those who are vulnerable either because of their age or because they have been caught up by an attractive but narcissistic partner. A sense of threat successfully pervades the collection, and whilst some of the writer’s narrative switches sometimes threw me briefly, I wanted to read on. Addiction, and its effect on family members, was another recurring idea and, in The Spell, we see a heartbreakingly young child caught up in events. The impact of a narcissist on those around is fully evident here – you know from the start that the narrator has something difficult to unfold, and Leuschel is skilful in her setting up of emotionally complex stories and investing a clause with so much meaning:
‘And I need to tell you right from the start that he is not my son, because I am not his biological mother. Yet, we would have both liked to have been each other’s family and, for a short while, we actually were.’
Leuschel is able to establish her characters quickly and effectively. I found the dialogue of the teenagers in Runaway Girl a little stilted, although the story itself has a good deal of heart, but the voices achieved in my favourite stories, Tess and Tattoos and The Narcissist, were very plausible, indeed horribly so in the latter:
‘The confusion in people’s faces was very amusing. I know that they wondered whether they had misunderstood me or, when I pointed out that I didn’t quite get their question, they would worry about the clarity of what they had said. People were so self- critical and apologetic.’
One of the main stories on Radio 4’s long-running The Archers in 2016 was the slow-burning development of Rob Titchener’s emotional abuse of his wife, Helen. It struck a chord with many, even initiating debate in the House of Commons, because it shone a light into something hitherto hidden. Leuschel’s stories do a similar thing, reminding readers that it is often in the private lives of the vulnerable that manipulation by someone close can have such devastating effects. This collection of stories presents a fascinating, if troubling, series of insights into a form of power-play which is often difficult to formally challenge, and which has provided Leuschel with rich ground for her narratives. She’s an interesting writer and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.