In An Indecent Obsession McCullough has constructed an enclosed world, a microcosm in which a controlled population of characters interact with no relief expected from outside influences. This isolation causes emotions to run high and causes reactions to events to be more intense than they might be otherwise.
Honour Langtry is in charge of the “troppo” ward, a hospital barrack for soldiers who need a rest. It is located in part of an almost evacuated hospital camp on a remote island. She has only five patients and expects the situation to be stable over the few weeks remaining before everyone goes home. Even more than the typical McCullough heroine, she is obsessed by duty. She feels responsible to do as much as possible for her patients, although she is hampered by having no special psychological training. Her solution has been to form them into a supportive family unit with herself as the matriarch.
At this point Michael, a new patient, arrives. Honour is immediately attracted to him, which upsets the balance in the ward as well as her own sense of her responsibilities. McCullough thus incorporates most of her standard themes—duty, family, forbidden love, and the influence of the environment upon people’s lives. Although the story has a human villain, Luce, an arrogant, twisted man who enjoys torturing the others, it is the island and the ward, in which the characters’ military responsibility compels them to remained trapped, that are the catalysts for the more catastrophic events of the book. McCullough describes the humidity, the mold, the insects, and their effects upon each character with a vividness which leaves little doubt as to their centrality to the story.
Honour and Michael attempt to place personal satisfaction above duty, with predictably dire results. Although they both subsequently devote themselves to selfless lives bounded purely by responsibility, their infraction marks them and they continue to pay for it. Only when Honour realizes that duty is “only another name for love” and surrenders to it without hoping for anything more, does she regain some measure of tranquillity.
This is one of McCullough’s shortest novels, and it trespasses further into the language of romance than her other works. McCullough has also allowed these characters more insight into one anothers’ thoughts and motivations than is perhaps believable. At the same time, the novel deals...
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