“I found my body early on a Tuesday.”
Full Immersion, Gemma Amor’s deeply personal sci-fi horror, opens with a cry for help from the protagonist, Magpie, who pleads to be accepted into a new Virtual Experimental Therapy program to overcome her postpartum depression. Magpie has tried all traditional forms of therapy but still finds herself sinking further into despair. Her letter to the Virtual Experimental Therapy program concludes with three devastating words: “Please help me.”
The main part of the novel focuses on Magpie’s treatment in this newly developed program, which involves “full immersion” in a virtual reality environment offering an alternative approach to therapy. The patient works together with a psychologist, who also enters the virtual world. Magpie’s immersion begins with her finding a dead body underneath a bridge, the same bridge in Bristol from which she has repeatedly imagined leaping to her death. To her horror, Magpie realizes that it is her own broken, decaying body in the mud. With this shocking discovery, her treatment begins.
Full Immersion alternates between the first-person narration of Magpie in the virtual world and the third-person narration of the laboratory staff as they monitor her progress. The change in tone between Magpie’s intensely emotional narration and the clinical observations of the program staff is rather jarring. To them, Magpie’s depression is an object of scientific study, but to Magpie it consumes all aspects of her life.
As Magpie begins her treatment program, there is a clear separation between the real and virtual worlds. But as the novel progresses, the boundary between the two worlds becomes blurred. Magpie’s experiences in the virtual world are akin to lucid dreaming, i.e., actively recognizing that one is dreaming and seeking to manipulate that dream. Similarly, Magpie gradually recognizes that she is in a virtual world and intuitively understands how to control her environment.
At first the clinical staff is surprised and impressed by Magpie’s ability to manipulate the virtual world. But this surprise gradually transitions to horror as her manipulation crosses over into the physical world.
Full Immersion is, first and foremost, a profound psychological analysis of a person who finds her way back from the deepest depths of postpartum depression. The sci-fi aspects of the story are a great vehicle for bringing Magpie’s mental state vividly to life. The horror elements mostly focus on Silhouette, a shadowy creature who represents the physical manifestation of Magpie’s depression, aggressively consuming everything in its path.
While Full Immersion is a wholly original tale, some aspects of the story reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece of magical realism, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Both books make prolific use of avian imagery, e.g., a birdcall as the harbinger of impending doom. More significantly, they both focus on characters who enter alternate mental states on journeys through the darkness of the human psyche toward self-discovery.
The finest books will leave such an indelible impact on the reader that it makes them a changed—and hopefully better—person. Full Immersion is one of those books. Gemma Amor is to be commended for her raw and honest description of postpartum depression. She reminds us that there is always a path out of the darkness.