We find ourselves through the process of escaping

reasons-to-stay-aliveReasons to Stay Alive
by Matt Haig

I had come across some very smart, funny, insightful blog posts by Haig that had put him on my to-read list, so when I saw that he was going to be at Toppings bookshop in Bath, I suggested to Tim that he might want to buy me tickets to the event. I am a helpful gift-receiver that way.

This book is a few things at once – it’s part memoir, part essay, part self-help – with depression as its subject. Haig said that the reader he had in mind was himself aged 25 having his first terrifying experience of depression and anxiety. So the chapters are short, the factual bits are never condescending, the literary quotes on the topic are accessible; it’s all very readable.

But most importantly, the trajectory of the book is upward. There is no “before” – the story starts at Haig’s rock bottom, aged 25 and not understanding at all what was happening to him. From there it is largely, though not entirely, chronological so that we end with Haig’s current state, which is that of course he still has depression but he has lots of ways to deal with it, he knows the bad times pass, and he is even thankful in some ways for having depression – for one, it made him a writer.

Continue reading “We find ourselves through the process of escaping”

World Mental Health Day

Today, 10 October, is World Mental Health Day. I write about this both because it’s an important cause that affects many many people, and because books and reading have a major part to play in helping improve mental health.

This year World Mental Health Day has the theme “dignity in mental health” – dealing with stigma and discrimination, changing social attitudes and spreading public awareness of the nature of mental illness. These are all major aims of Bristol Mind, among others, and many people are holding coffee mornings and other events around the city – and the world – today.

As author Matt Haig discussed in his excellent article for the Telegraph yesterday, books can genuinely help those with depression and other mental-health issues. The Reading Agency works with GPs to prescribe books to alleviate mental-health problems through its Reading Well scheme. And this actually works. Reading reduces stress; it also improves empathy, memory and cognition – perhaps we should all be prescribed books!

Continue reading “World Mental Health Day”

Paused in an atmosphere of extraordinary pallor and thickness

outlineOutline
by Rachel Cusk

Though Cusk has written eight other books in-between, this new novel shares a lot in common with her first two books. There is a vagueness about it and a distinct lack of story, but there is also some beautiful writing.

The narrator is an English divorcee writer (a little autobiography peeking through perhaps?) who goes to Greece to teach a writing class for a week. That’s pretty much the whole story. She speaks with a series of people, some friends, some random strangers, and recounts their stories. She has a knack of getting people to open up to her but reveals very little about herself. And yet she does seem concerned with the truth and questions the honesty of those she speaks to.

The title appears to refer to the series of sketches of people’s lives that the narrator presents, but a quote from towards the end of the book suggests another reason:

“She began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her…a sense of who she now was.”

Continue reading “Paused in an atmosphere of extraordinary pallor and thickness”

I am too diffused

The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook
by Doris Lessing

This book is more of an intellectual exercise than a novel, which has its rewards and makes it good fodder for discussion, but doesn’t make it the most enjoyable book I’ve read lately. Not that I hated it by any means, I’m glad I’ve read it, but I’m not convinced of Lessing’s skill as a writer so much as her intellect.

Having said there’s plenty to discuss, I’m not sure some of the more interesting things I got from it can go into this review as they reveal too much about the end of the book, but I’ll try to say what I can without spoilers and without sounding like a study guide (which, incidentally, there are plenty of for this book, because it’s that kind of book).

This is the story of two women, Anna and Molly, in 1950s London. (There are some flashbacks to earlier in their lives, particularly Anna’s, but the bulk of the story is in the 50s.) Molly is an actress, with a steady stream of small parts, or sometimes big parts in small shows. She has a grown son, Tommy, who lives with her and a fraught relationship with her ex-husband Richard. Anna is a writer who wrote one very successful book early in her life and has been living off the proceeds since. She is also a single mother, though the story of the child’s father is only gradually revealed. Both women have been communists, which proved a major influence on their lives.

“Looking back at those week-ends they seem like beads on a string, two big glittering ones to start with, then a succession of small, unimportant ones, then another brilliant one to end. But that is just the lazy memory.”

Essentially, the book is split into sections: there’s the “wraparound novel”, a seemingly straightforward narrative about Anna and Molly, titled Free Women. Then there are four notebooks kept by Anna, in which she writes about different aspects of her life, splitting herself and the way she observes the world. Anna writes multiple times that she can’t help fictionalising her own life, indeed it is never wholly clear whether Free Women is written by her, and therefore yet another fictionalised account, or if it is the supposedly objective “truthful” account.

“I was going to say disaster. That word is ridiculous. Because what is so painful about that time is that nothing was disastrous. It was all wrong, ugly, unhappy and coloured with cynicism, but nothing was tragic, there were no moments that could change anything or anybody.”

Anna’s previously published novel that she is living off was loosely based on her own experience in colonial Africa during the Second World War, and she writes several accounts of her time there in the notebooks, but they don’t entirely match up – sometimes she changes names, sometimes she refers to the version of the story told in her novel. When you add to this that Anna shares an awful lot in common with Doris Lessing, it all starts getting rather meta. Lessing’s own explanation of the book is that it’s a novel plus the notes an author makes surrounding it, which either demonstrates how much is discarded from the full “fictional” idea, or demonstrates how differently the same “true” story can be told, even by the same person.

“I am incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life. It is because I am too diffused.”

Which all sounds more complicated than it is to read. The writing style is pretty straightforward, though I found my interest wavered with the subject matter. The overriding theme of the notebooks is to analyse over and over, which I tended to find an interruption to the story rather than an enhancement, but arguably it was the whole point. Though Lessing claims in her introduction that the novel isn’t “about” anything except a person falling apart, it certainly has a lot to say about communism, feminism, friendship, writing, love, sex, relationships, parenthood, psychoanalysis and truth. I suppose you could try to read it as a straightforward narrative without trying to piece together the different versions of the same story, but for me that was part of the fun. I like that when I got to the end there were several ways to interpret it, both in terms of what “happened” and in what the “real” structure is.

“It’s a question of form. People don’t mind immoral messages. They don’t mind art which says that murder is good, cruelty is good, sex for sex’s sake is good. They like it, provided the message is wrapped up a little. And they like the messages saying that murder is bad, cruelty is bad, and love is love is love is love. What they can’t stand is to be told it all doesn’t matter, they can’t stand formlessness.”

However, I only fully engaged with relatively short sections (bearing in mind this is 550 pages of small print), when the story got under flow, in-between lists, newspaper cuttings, diary-style brief notes and the like. I didn’t warm to Anna, which is in some ways surprising as a writer struggling with anxiety and depression, contemplating motherhood and politics, full of concern about the world, should be right up my street! But I mostly found her cold and unemotional, even listless, making odd decisions about life, which I suppose might arguably be a better depiction of depression than many I’ve read.

Maybe it was just far too long. I certainly highlighted dozens of passages that I admired, either for the language or for the idea. I really liked learning more about communism in Britain in the 1950s, and about war-time in a British colony in Africa, but despite her Nobel Prize in Literature I don’t think I’ll be rushing back to Lessing.

First published 1962 by Michael Joseph.

Source: Paper copy bought from Toppings in Bath, e-book from Amazon. (I have both as I was going on holiday just before the book club and I only take my Kindle on holidays.)

I was a furious pinpoint

Beside the Sea

Beside the Sea
by Véronique Olmi
translated from French by Adriana Hunter

This was the first book published by small publisher Peirene Press and since I began blogging I have been hearing how wonderful this book is, so earlier this year I bought it. But the thing is that the premise of the book is so dark, so sad, that it took me a while to pick it up and to be honest even though I think it brilliant I am not sure I would ever want to put myself through it again.

The story is that of a single mother who takes her two boys to the seaside for a holiday she has planned and dreamed of for a long long time, but she is poor and suffers from depression so nothing is as she had hoped. And to add to the bleakness she has a plan to protect her boys from the world at the end of this holiday, a plan that is not explained but is nevertheless clear from page one.

“It felt really strange driving away from the city, leaving it for this unknown plane, specially as it wasn’t the holidays and that’s what the boys kept thinking, I know they did. We’d never been away for a holiday, never left the city, and suddenly life felt new, my stomach was in knots, I was thirsty the whole time and everything was irritating, but I did my best, yes really my best, so the kids didn’t notice anything. I wanted us to set off totally believing in it.”

I found this book extremely disturbing. Olmi does an amazing job of bringing to life a mother juggling money troubles and hunger and some form of depression, getting right inside her mind, which is not a comfortable place to be. Her four and eight year old sons are more au fait with the world than she is, and she feels this keenly. She has such a disturbed view of world, full of paranoia and fear, that she frequently hides from it all by trying to sleep, and her sons are familiar with this and accept it, even when they’ve skipped multiple meals and promise after promise has been broken.

“Lights mingled with the sound system, becoming as depressing as the songs, you couldn’t see the rain but it was following us all…the bells wouldn’t stop ringing, people were hurrying onto rides in every direction, where did all that money come from, everyone could afford everything, there was too much of everything everywhere, too much noise, too much rain, too many lights, all reeling past me.”

Olmi’s real skill is to show that this mother, struggling and under suspicion of social services and indeed most people they meet, truly loves her children and is trying as hard as she humanly can to do what’s right by them, it just isn’t enough. It’s unbearably sad. Doubly so as it’s so clear where this is going but you’re willing it not to go there, to find a way out.

“I was a furious pinpoint, with darkness all around, I was a star, old and always there, old and full of fire. I’d been thrown up into the sky, I wasn’t holding on to anything but everything around me hung on, like I was cradled by arms.”

I was left in a black mood for a couple of days after reading this book. I salute Olmi’s skill and achievement but I really do not want to enter that world again.

Bord de mer published 2001 by Actes Sud.
Translation published 2010 by Peirene Press.

Source: Bought direct from the publisher.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

A dictionary of loss

Mr Chartwell

Mr Chartwell
by Rebecca Hunt

Since this book came out I had wanted to read it and finally persuaded my book club to read it for April – only to get the date of our meeting completely wrong and then get in a reading funk that meant it took me over two weeks to get through this thin little novel. I suspect this reflects unfairly on the book, because it never gripped me and yet I thought it was great.

The Mr Chartwell of the title is a large black dog who turns up on the doorstep of mousy librarian Esther and asks to rent her spare room. He is a bizarre combination of obnoxious human being and actual dog, but we gradually realise he is far more complicated than that. He is the physical manifestation of depression and shares out his attentions between Esther and a certain Winston Churchill.

Mr Chartwell, also known as Black Pat, is a repulsive character, as of course he should be. He irritates, demeans, distracts and tires out his victims. The setting is 1968, on the eve of Churchill’s retirement, so he is by now a dab hand at dealing with Black Pat’s visits, while Esther is completely new to it and takes most of the novel to figure out what is going on.

“A shirt dropped on the floor had developed a modest beauty, cultivating the painterly creases of a restaurant napkin. On the windowsill was a small balding plant. The magic of the late light made it gorgeous and exotic.
Esther stared from the bed, blind to these things. She lay on her side of the mattress. A hand explored the other side and it was a dictionary of loss. Up came the hand, disturbed by something disgusting. A tuft of collected fur. Over the bed, over everything.”

It really is a very original and interesting premise. It’s a clever way to depict depression and anxiety, giving an explanation that is at once nonsensical and yet makes a lot of sense. Several times, Black Pat comments how easy it is to give in to him, how he becomes a friend but of course he is a hated enemy so how can that be?

“She did nothing. The noble action was no action, for to discuss the dog would violate a guarded privacy, exhuming the bones of a family of secrets. It would be grave robbery. The dog’s genius was to make orphans of hope and brotherhood, and she was united with Churchill in their isolation.”

The characterisation is excellent. While it may seem clichéd to have a mousy librarian sinking into depression, Esther’s colleagues Beth and Corkbowl add a bit of liveliness and variety to the workplace. And Churchill’s brash, often aggressive conversations with Black Pat make an interesting contrast to Esther’s meek acceptance. I did find that Churchill spoke a little too much like a speech-maker, in wise aphorisms (except when he was swearing at Black Pat) but perhaps he really did speak like that. I would imagine Hunt did some research on him.

The quote on the front cover of my copy calls it “original, tender and funny” and I largely agree. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny but between the ridiculousness of the talking dog and gentle humour provided by characters in a more everyday way there is definitely some fun. And the issue of depression is certainly explored tenderly, carefully keeping its extreme depths at a distance, though they are certainly acknowledged. But really this is more about the lower-level, longer-lingering depression, a constant anxiety that has to be kept in check, the ongoing battle to get on with life.

“‘I aspire to have the smile of Tess of the D’Urbervilles…Hardy wrote that she had a smile like roses of snow.’
…Esther took in the exhibition of teeth. No roses of snow, it was a split haggis stuck with shards of coconut bark.”

First published 2010 by Fig Tree. Published in Penguin Books 2011.

Source: I think I bought this myself from an actual proper bookshop.

Book and film: “I just know that another kid has felt this”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky

I must admit that this book came on my radar because of the film, but both book and film sounded right up my street so I thought I’d check it out. I was completely right – this is a very sweet story. I’ll start with my thoughts on the book.

Charlie is starting high school and as a coping mechanism he starts writing anonymous letters about his life to a stranger, as an alternative to keeping a diary. He documents his discovery of girls, drugs, music and sex but this isn’t a straightforward coming of age tale.

“My brother started saying how my sister was just a ‘bitchy dyke.’ Then, my mom told my brother to not use such language in front of me, which was strange considering I am probably the only one in the family with a friend who is gay…
‘Are you high?’
And again my mom asked my brother not to use such language in front of me, which was strange again because I think I’m the only person in my family who’s ever been high…Then again, maybe my whole family has been high, and we just don’t tell each other these things.”

Charlie is socially awkward and, we gradually realise, suffers from some form of depression and/or other psychological disorder. What it is is never stated outright but there are hints that things in his past have affected him badly. He begins as a thorough outsider but gets taken under the wing of brother and sister Sam and Patrick, who cheerfully embrace alternative culture, in the form of music, drugs and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Charlie is also “adopted” by a schoolteacher who gives him extra books to read.

There are a lot of characters who are damaged in some way, often having suffered horribly as young children, and it is one of the book’s strengths that it acknowledges that this has affected them without making it define them. It is in many ways a joyous book about the good times of being a teenager, and yet serious issues are tackled.

“I just know that another kid has felt this…all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people.”

There are lots of books, songs and films referenced; music in particular is key to the friendships depicted. Which lends itself very nicely to, say, a film soundtrack.

In the world of book-versus-film-adaptation, this is a bit of an unusual case. It’s Chbosky’s only novel to date; he seems to have carved a career as a film and TV writer. Indeed, he wrote the screenplay for and directed the film of this book. So it’s unsurprising that it’s a pretty faithful adaptation, with the same tone and the same key moments.

There are some differences. Some plot strands are necessarily jettisoned, which makes the film less nuanced (I’m thinking particularly of Charlie’s brother and sister here, who both had bigger roles in the book). When reading the book I thought there were hints that Charlie might be autistic to some degree, but there was no sign of that in the film. In the film I felt that the Rocky Horror Picture Show got much more emphasis than I’d expected, which reminded me a lot of Fame (indeed, the two have a few things in common and might make a good double bill).

Overall, I enjoyed both film and book. Neither is a classic but they’re certainly better than average and do a good job of balancing tough subjects with a happy, even optimistic, attitude to life.

Published 1999 by MTV Books.

Source: I bought this secondhand.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better

Swimming Home
by Deborah Levy

I had heard quite mixed reviews of this novel but it was on the staff picks shelf at the very lovely Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath so I took a chance. I can see why it has divided people. As the blurb says, “it wears its darkness lightly”.

The set-up is that familiar one of the middle-class English family holidaying in a villa on the French Riviera when a stranger intrudes. Or is it? There are clues throughout that things are not what they seem and to the last page I was not sure if all or any of the events recounted had actually happened.

“He leaned his head out of the window and felt the cold mountain air sting his lips…They knew the past lived in rocks and trees and they knew desire made them awkward, mad, mysterious, messed up…He asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter.
“‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.'”

What it appears to be is the story of famous poet Joe Jacobs and his absent war correspondent wife Isabel, whose marriage is breaking down. But there’s also their teenage daughter Nina, childlike for her 14 years but trying to be one of the adults. And there’s family friends Laura and Mitchell, a couple who run a boutique shop in London and who never seem comfortable in this holiday setting. And then there’s Kitty Finch, the stranger who turns up floating naked in their outdoor swimming pool, unembarrassed by her nakedness or the apparent mix-up that has brought her there.

There are some plot threads that seem so inevitable that Levy has put their conclusions on the first page to save the reader wondering. Yes, we do have a philandering husband and a beautiful, strange young woman thrown in his path. Yes, we do have characters dealing with depression and thoughts of death. And if you take it all at face value then you might say that what happens is no more than the sum of these parts. But I think that the writing demands more of its reader.

There are two obfuscating themes: identity and fiction. Joe, we learn early on, is Jozef to his wife, JHJ to his readers. Everyone lies or withholds information or tells different versions of the truth. Not only is Joe a poet, but Kitty is an aspiring writer eager for his opinion of her work, and then later in a section told from Nina’s perspective there are short poems thrown into the narrative as if she, too, is a poet, an inventor of fictions. Characters seem to repeat each other’s words or actions as if the novel is being rewritten even as you read it.

“No one dared say they minded, because the war correspondent was controlling them all. Like she had the final word or was daring them to contradict her. The truth was her husband had the final word because he wrote words and then he put full stops at the end of them.”

Add to all this that two characters have a history of depression and related illnesses and a third character is constantly stoned, and you have yourself a thoroughly unreliable narrative. What seems like a quick, easy, fluid read becomes so much more than the sum of its parts.

Published 2011 by And Other Stories.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012.

A fragility to the space between them

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year
by Sue Townsend

There may be a certain symmetry in me reading this book in one day, a day when I was off work sick in bed. I certainly found myself sympathising with main character Eva more than I might have another day.

The day that Eva’s twins leave home for university she takes to her bed and declares that she will not be leaving it again for a year. She asks her husband to use another bedroom from now on. So begins Townsend’s latest comical exploration of modern life. Compared with her other books, this is slightly less about Britain and slightly more about people and coping. But it’s as ever an insightful study of society and humanity.

“Alexander said, ‘I would hate to be you, man. Your heart must look like them ugly pickled walnuts they sell at Christmas. Naasty tings!’
‘I’m one of the most compassionate men I know,’ said Brian…’And if you think that by affecting a West Indian patois I will be intimidated by you, you’re wrong. I’ve got a pal called Azizi – he’s African, but he’s a good chap.’
Alexander queried, ‘But he’s a good chap?'”

Eva is surprisingly sympathetic considering how incredibly self-indulgent her actions are. Even as she is demanding that her sick, elderly mother and mother-in-law take their turns bringing her food and drink, she is so astutely examining herself, asking “the big questions” and paying attention to the rest of the world (ironically, as she has now separated herself from it) that she is difficult to dislike.

Townsend combines the comic and the serious to great effect:

“Ruby said, ‘Look, I’m not getting into another argument about God. All I know is that he looks after me…’
Eva said gently, ‘But he didn’t save you from losing your purse, tickets and passport when you were at East Midlands Airport last year, did he?’
Ruby said, ‘He can’t be everywhere, and he’s bound to be busy at peak holiday time…Do you know, Eva, sometimes I can’t wait to get to heaven. I’m tired of living down here since everything went complicated.'”

Yes, there’s a lot of he said, she said, but there are also phrases that are beautifully formed:

“There was a fragility to the space between them, as though their breath had frozen and could easily shatter if the wrong word were said.”

Sadly, I must admit that Eva is the only character who isn’t a little bit of a caricature. When her astrophysicist husband is introduced he seems quiet and loving and I was hopeful that this would also be an acute examination of marriage/love but it is not. He turns out to be a bit of a joke figure and there is little love between them. Similarly the hyper-intelligent twin children are slightly cliched. But there are a lot of characters in this book who all have a role to play in Eva’s search for answers so perhaps it’s best that they are not all as complex and real as she is.

In some ways this books reminded me of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – both books take an ordinary person who becomes a temporary celebrity for an odd reason, who becomes the unlikely focus of admirers and newspaper stories and Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags and is disconcerted by this. I suppose it’s a comment on modern life and celebrity and society, but I found it a little hard to believe that people would really get caught up by the story of a woman who decided to take to her bed (though there is a little more to it than that).

Of course, what this book does have in spades is humour. I laughed out loud time and again. It was a real tonic for a bad day and an interesting, perhaps not complete change but certainly slight deviation in focus for Townsend.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Penguin.

Veils, shimmering like curtains

Ariel
by Sylvia Plath

A still life for Easter

This was Plath’s final volume of poetry, published two years after her death, and I could not separate the knowledge of what shortly followed these writings from the words themselves. It was not an easy read.

Death is everywhere in these poems. I got shivers down my spine on almost every page. Yet these are not obvious musings on death but rather word collages. For the most part the poems are constructed of a series of images, with no clear story or scene, but there are a few exceptions. “Gulliver” describes Swift’s character in the scene in Lilliput when he is tied to the ground:

“You there on your back,
Eyes to the sky.
The spider-men have caught you,”

“Daddy” explores her feelings about her father, a complex relationship despite his death early in her life (“I was ten when they buried you”). And “Wintering” is actually the last part of a series of four poems about her new-found vocation of beekeeping:

“Now they ball in a mass,
Black
Mind against all that white.”

But these are exceptions in-between the darker poems (and even those were not entirely free from comment on death). Her depression is ever present:

“I am terrified by this dark thing
That sleeps in me;
All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” [from “Elm”]

She refers to her previous suicide attempt many times over, making it clear her only regret about it is that she didn’t succeed:

“After all I am alive only by accident.
I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.
Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains” [from “A birthday present”]

But the poem that moved me most was “Years”, where Plath’s pain and anger seem to be at their peak:

“O God, I am not like you
In your vacuous black,
Stars stuck all over, bright stupid confetti.
Eternity bores me,
I never wanted it.”

First published 1965 by Faber & Faber.