I am swing-swing between worlds, people, things

HERmione
by Hilda “HD” Doolittle

I’ve delayed writing this review because I really didn’t know how to describe this book. It’s a strange, repeating, myth-referencing auto-fiction about a young woman. The strangeness and repetition point to the main character’s emotional fragility, but they also reflect her wider character – an intelligent woman well-versed in arts and sciences who can quickly get lost in thoughts and dreams.

It’s the fictionalised memoir of a year in Hilda Doolittle’s youth, 1907–08, when she was 21. She wrote this in 1927 and at the time of her death in 1961 was preparing it for publication, but it then got packed away with all her literary estate and didn’t finally see publication until 1981. This may or may not be related to the bisexual nature of both the author and her fictionalised counterpart.

The story takes a bit of teasing out from the abstract prose, and it helps to learn about HD’s own life to fully follow it (in my copy there is an introduction by HD’s daughter that fills in some gaps), but the actual events aren’t really what’s important here. HD has done an incredible job of finding the words to depict fragile mental health.

Continue reading “I am swing-swing between worlds, people, things”

A piece of a human being but yes, a human being

Sophie’s Choice
by William Styron

I spent most of December re-reading Sophie’s Choice. I wanted to understand what it was about it I fell in love with 10 years ago. I still think it’s a great book, but it has dropped a little in my estimation.

Partly that’s its length. I used to happily read much longer books than I do now. It’s not that I have anything against long books per se, but I have less patience for rambling. I’ve always had a fondness for brevity. This book is not brief. But it is an amazing story.

This is the story of Sophie, an attractive young Polish woman who has survived the Holocaust – has survived Auschwitz – and come to live in Brooklyn, where she works as a doctor’s receptionist and is in a relationship with Nathan, a volatile but charming man who rents a room across the corridor from her. Sophie’s back story is told intermittently between the tale of the second half of 1947.

The title of this book is so familiar, a phrase well known for its hint of torment, but now that so much time has passed since both the book’s publication and the film based on it, many people now will, like me when I first read it, not know exactly what the choice of the title refers to. The novel is structured around gradually revealing Sophie’s secret, but there are plenty of smaller reveals along the way.

Continue reading “A piece of a human being but yes, a human being”

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”

This is mad, and I promise. All those words

Paradises

Paradises
by Iosi Havilio
translated from Spanish by Beth Fowler

I got this book as part of my subscription to And Other Stories. I didn’t realise that it’s a sequel to Havilio’s first novel, Open Door, but I’m not sure how much that mattered. However, I guess that does mean that this review might contain spoilers to the first book (which I fully intend to go back and read now).

This novel follows a young mother who, suddenly widowed and forced off her husband’s farm, moves to Buenos Aires with her four-year-old son Simón. She finds work, housing and friends in a poor, dodgy corner of the city.

“It’s me who ends up carrying Simón most of the way, and if at first it feels like he’ll break my back, I adapt as we go and that annoying kick between the ribs becomes just another part of my body. Like everything, once the novelty has passed, things stop hurting or making you happy.”

The unnamed narrator floats through life, letting things happen to her, which was sometimes frustrating but totally believable. There are fleeting references to a lunatic asylum in her past, and she does show non-specific signs of some kind of mental illness – a loose hold on reality, an inability to say no to some really bad ideas, a surprising comfort with lying.

“I think about how each of us had to devise our truth in relation to the other, a comparison of before and after. And that’s the reason for all the affectations, the smiles, the embarrassment, the surprise, the And you? This is mad, and I promise. All those words.”

In some ways this is a story of survival. The narrator is doing what she can to get through life and parenthood. Though she’s new to the city, she is some ways ideally suited to this kind of life, though she is also the type of person most at risk from it.

Her vagueness isn’t just apparent in her narration, it’s also clear from the way her friends interact with her. Most of them take what they want from her silence, interpreting it the way that suits them best, but then other people (probably those who are best for her) struggle and fail to understand.

“I look into his eyes, sad, broken eyes like an orphaned, tortured cat’s, I don’t know what to say to him…I sympathise in silence, with my eyebrows, all the words of consolation that occur to me turn out to be impossible to articulate. He realises this and must feel a bit disappointed.”

I loved the opening of this novel, with the uncomfortable funeral and the final days at the farm. And I liked the rest of it, but I think I did ultimately find the narrator too vague and frustrating to love the book overall.

Published 2013 by And Other Stories.

Source: I subscribe to the publisher.