Book Review: Corpsing

corpsing

“What I was looking for at all times was an escape hatch, a way out of the present moment, to tunnel out of my totally unremarkable and pathetic self. To break the cycle of being a terminal disappointment: a disappointment as a daughter, a mother, a woman, failing at that implied contract of womanhood – of being nice and attractive and contained.”

Corpsing, by Sophie White, is taglined My Body and Other Horror Shows – appropriate given its focus on how one’s body cannot always be relied upon. It is a collection of essays that serve as memoir. The raw honesty of the subjects explored is both refreshing and horrifying, laying bare the sheer effort required to exist in a world where quietly keeping up appearances is the expected norm. Issues examined include the impact on self of: drug taking, grief, mental breakdown, motherhood, self harm, alcoholism. The author has both a caring mother and husband, along with three dependant children, but brings to the fore how living in the world must ultimately be coped with – or not – alone.

Divided into five sections, the first contains a series of essays that deal with the death of White’s father – a drawn out decline that finally ended shortly after the birth of her second child. The violence of birth is compared to the shrunken existence of a human body as it fades towards its inevitable end, when those left behind are cast adrift.

“Birth is explosive and volatile; the final moment of life takes this same explosion and detonates it deep inside us.”

The author struggled to cope with her sense of loss. She went through the motions of each day by keeping busy – looking after her children and starting a new job. And by turning to alcohol. Wine helped numb the sharp edges that threatened to cut her to pieces. What she needed was to be seen to be coping, not making a fuss.

From the outside, White’s childhood was not difficult. She was brought up by loving parents in material comfort. Peel back the veneer and there are all too common incidents that she knew needed to be swept under the carpet: older boys acting inappropriately with her four year old body, a friend’s mother’s who suggested a nine year old White eat fewer puddings to fit into a princess dress, being told she was ugly by laughing boys when a teenager. Absorbing, internalising these unremarkable events, as expected by those around her, leaves lasting scars.

Like many young people, the author in her teens experimented with alcohol and drugs.

“a place of refuge where I could take a break from being myself”

Aged twenty-two she took an ecstasy tablet while camping at a festival. The bad reaction suffered changed her forever. She describes it in detail, the start of her ‘madness’. There followed a breakdown, psychiatric help, the slow clawing back from thoughts of suicide. Years of travel, working as a chef or living meagerly off grid, provided ‘a strategy for restoring sanity’. The essays describing this period are terrifying to consider – the risks taken by young people that so many get away with – yet prove evocative and hopeful.

Returning to Ireland and getting married brought into sharp relief the relationship women have with their bodies and appetites.

“If you were born in the latter half of the twentieth century, then you will know that fat is the very worst thing. The worst thing to eat. The worst thing to be.”

This series of essays is wonderful in highlighting the many ridiculous habits so many absorb, and how women police not just their own bodies but those of others – family, friends, even strangers.

Later essays explore further the author’s descent into alcoholism, and how drunk girls are dehumanised.

“She teeters and topples, knees scuffed. She deserves nothing. No justice if she is victimised by an opportunistic predator. Opportunistic – it’s a word that practically commends this tenacious, moment-seizing, go-getting rapist.”

Another disturbing incident at a festival is detailed, but it is the drinking at home that many stressed out mothers may relate most to. The thoughts on motherhood are as honest as anything I have read on the subject – the pain and fatigue but, more than that, the judgement.

“When a man leaves work to attend to his child, it is commended; when a woman leaves work to attend to her child, it is noted.”

And, of course, the harshest judge of all is the mother herself – her inability to be perfect at all times leading to feelings of failure.

In amongst these excellent essays are topics that may be a little more esoteric: vampirism, adult thumb sucking, knitting. As the author approaches the end of the book: she gives birth to a third child, the COVID-19 lockdown is imposed, she suffers another breakdown and is taken into psychiatric care. It is a reminder that mental illness is managed rather than cured.

White has a writing style that is vehement in its desire for unadorned realism yet contains much humour. The macabre is balanced by recognition of how so many choose to live unaware, to turn away from the unpleasant. The conspiracy of silence that mostly surrounds the unpalatable truths of giving birth and mothering are discarded by the author witheringly.

As well as being eminently engaging, somehow this is an enjoyable read despite the blood, gore and madness. It is an eye-opening account of the strength required to hold a life together – a reminder to show compassion however ingrained judgement of others’ outward behaviour has become in an age of picture perfect social media.

Corpsing is published by Tramp Press. My copy was provided gratis by Turnaround UK.

Robyn Reviews: Challenger Deep

Challenger Deep is a brilliant exploration of what it’s like to be a teenager with psychosis. Told in first person, it chronicles the insidious development of mental illness and its impact – on school, family, and the individual. Alongside this, there is a story about a ship on a quest to the Marianas Trench, with the narrative alternating between the two. The purpose of this second storyline is not immediately clear, but as more is revealed the two cleverly intersect. Each plotline provides relief when the other gets too heavy – this isn’t a book that shies away from the dark parts of mental illness.

‘The things I feel cannot be put into words, or if they can, the words are in no language anyone can understand’.

The protagonist, Caden, is fifteen and an American schoolkid. He’s always been a smart, social kid, the type to flit effortlessly between friend groups and fit in anywhere. He’s an artist, spending his free time drawing and designing video games with his friends.

In the parallel story, Caden, is a crewmember on a ship. He’s the youngest member of the crew, still trying to figure out where he fits in. He shares a cabin with the ship’s navigator, a man with a fondness for alliteration and rhyme who spends his time creating maps and star charts. At night, he dreams about the White Plastic Kitchen, a kitchen full of sparkling white appliances that regularly plays host to monsters.

The highlight of this book is the language. The way Caden’s internal monologue is narrated is gorgeous – often harrowing and disturbing, but written so well it’s hauntingly beautiful. I’ve read other books by Neil Shusterman, but this is undoubtedly where his linguistic skills are at their best.

‘What’s going on? I’m in the back of the car of a roller coaster at the top of the climb, with the front rows already giving themselves over to gravity. I can hear those front riders screaming and know my own scream is only seconds away… I’m leaping off a cliff only to discover that I can fly… and then realising there’s nowhere to land. Ever. That’s what’s going on.’

Shusterman mentions in the notes at the end that he created Caden with collaboration from a family member who suffered from psychosis. Having worked with psychosis patients myself, it seems – from an outsider’s perspective – to be an excellent depiction. His mannerisms, actions, speech, changes in emotions – all of them change with the course of the disease, subtly at first until they become overwhelmingly obvious. Later in the book, Caden also meets other patients with various mental illnesses, and – whilst we only get Caden’s perspective of them – their presentations also feel accurate. I’m always wary of fictional depictions of psychosis because of how much stigma there is against it, but Shusterman avoids all the major pitfalls here.

‘The fear of not living is a deep, abiding dread of watching your own potential decompose into irredeemable disappointment when “should be” gets crushed by what is. Sometimes I think it would be easier to die than to face that, because “what could have been” is much more highly regarded than “what should have been”. Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.’

This isn’t always an easy read, and – despite the very short chapters – isn’t designed to be a quick one. However, in many ways, I think it’s an essential one. Psychosis is hugely misunderstood and very common, affecting at least 1% of the population at some point in their lives. This is one of the best depictions I’ve ever read. If you want to understand psychosis and start breaking down the stigma, this is a good place to start.

Overall, this is a highly recommended young adult book for teenagers and adults alike with an interest in psychology and mental illness.

 

Thanks so much to NetGalley and Walker Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

 

Published by Walker Books
Paperback: 6th August 2020

Book Review: Bad Mommy Stay Mommy

Bad Mommy / Stay Mommy, by Elisabeth Horan, is a collection of poems that provide a visceral and often harrowing account of the author’s postpartum depression. Following the birth of her second son, Horan found her world unravelling. Her behaviour made others uncomfortable and, at times, angry. She was not behaving as a new mother is required by society. Most of all though Horan struggled to cope with the change in herself.

“I am you in mixed acrylic on a Pollack canvas”

The author writes of the guilt she feels over how she treats her two young children due to her illness. The boys know that she is sad but must still bear the brunt of her mood changes.

“Who am I? lashing out –
my tongue a leather whip
leaving verbal welts
on the back of someone so small”

In Wellbutrin in my Brain, Horan recounts the effects of the medication she was prescribed.

“I’m fat and puffy yet endlessly hungry,
my hair in my hands and
my back to the wall of a cliff;
then falling, falling
into a Dali sea –

Rife and roiling with
lunatics like me.”

Efforts to be around her family are depicted in raw, emotion. She writes of prowling through night’s darkness and of regrets when, exhausted, she lashes out again.

“But what of the little boy?
Cowering, looking to me for shelter”

Basement Mother is one of several poems that reference her self-hatred. This leads to suicidal thoughts that are expanded upon. In Mother Maple she writes of the cost to her family.

“Funnny, how they hold up
The felled trunk of me
Even as they succumb
From my smothering –
From the immense weight
Crushing them.”

Despite the torment she knows that her family wants her. She struggles to see how, in this state, she can be good for them. She becomes desperate to find a way out of the abyss.

“Gnawing on one’s own failure bed
my prone heart
the same the same”

A climax is reached in Better off without me which is powerful, painful, and should be read in its entirety.

As the title suggests, eventually Horan finds a way to stay alive.

“t’isn’t easy being in the world now
as a member, not an inmate

My own warden.”

It is rare to find such an honest depiction of a new mother’s wounds and shortcomings. The complexities of mental illness are balanced with the love felt for the children, love that is written between the lines rather than sentimentalised. Despite the depression so searingly depicted there is hope in this collection.

A stark yet spirited window into a condition rarely brought into open, honest discussion. An important portrayal that overflows with a rare candour. Hear her roar.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press. 

Book Review: Lucia

The AI sheet that accompanied my proof copy of Lucia informed me that

“Lucia is intellectually uncompromising. Lucia is emotionally devastating. Lucia is unlike anything anyone else has ever written.”

I concur. This, his second work of creative fiction based on the life of a real person, establishes Alex Pheby as a literary talent deserving close attention.

The eponymous Lucia was the second child of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. The bare bones of her story are easily verifiable but little else is known. She was born in Trieste, Italy and lived across Europe, her peripatetic parents moving the family from hotels to shabby apartments depending on their financial status. Lucia was a talented dancer. She was Samuel Beckett’s lover. She spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum. Following her death her remaining family strove to erase her from the public record. They destroyed her letters, removed references to her from the archives. Even her medical records were taken.

In this novel the author does not attempt to create a detailed biography. Rather he presents Lucia’s story in fragments and told from a variety of points of view. Between each chapter is a motif detailing the discovery of an ancient Egyptian tomb that is developed to serve as explanation.

The story created is shocking and affecting, presented in a manner that makes it all too believable. The voice throughout remains detached, the needs of the narrators evident even when they presume they are acting in Lucia’s best interests. The reader will feel outraged at her treatment.

The tale starts at Lucia’s end, in 1982, when undertakers arrive to collect the body of the deceased. Six years later a student is employed to burn the contents of a chest filled with letters, photographs and other effects. The thoughts of these characters offer a first glimpse of Lucia. Mostly though they focus on their subject as they go about the tasks assigned. Lucia is subsidiary, often something of a nuisance. This sets the tone for how she was treated in life.

Lucia is depicted as an object that others must deal with. If she will not comply she must be tamed. Children are expected to behave, denied agency ‘for their own good’ with resulting complaints dismissed. Troublesome little girls can be threatened to silence them.

Lucia’s relationships with various family members, especially her brother, are vividly dealt with. Whatever other’s behaviour, it is she who will stand accused of spoiling things for everyone if she protests.

As a young woman Lucia was considered beautiful. She clashed with her mother which led to her being incarcerated. The cutting edge treatments for mental illnesses at the time were experimental and horrifying.

Lucia was moved around as a cure for her behaviour was sought. After the war she was transferred to an asylum in Northampton where she spent her remaining decades. She was buried here, away from her family. Even in death they sought to silence her.

The fragmentary style of writing and the distractions of the narrators are effectively harnessed to portray the instability that was a signature in Lucia’s life. The reader is offered glimpses but always at the periphery. There is a sense of detachment, a tacit acceptance that those who will not behave as society requires are a nuisance to be subdued and hidden away.

Yet this is a story that pulses with emotion. Lucia rises inexorably from the page. The author has filled out the gaps in her history with a story that whilst unsettling resonates. That he does so with such flair and aplomb makes this a recommended read.

 

Book Review: The Storyteller

thestoryteller

“Do not take this moment lightly. Tread gently on its paths. This time too will never come again.”

The Storyteller, by Kate Armstrong, is a tale woven from the intricate threads of a life damaged by tragedy. Iris Buchanan is teasing the details from Rachel Miller, a young woman she has come to know in the psychiatric hospital where they are both being treated. Iris tells Rachel that she used to write romantic novels and wishes to lay down her life story in this vein. The book is their discussion told from Iris’s point of view.

As Rachel talks of her experiences the reader can see that Iris is adding in her own. She is possessive, at times voyeuristic in her fact gathering. There are echoes of Barbara from Heller’s ‘Notes on a Scandal’ although this is a very different work.

The events recounted are almost an aside to the heightened level of consciousness detailed. Rachel feels deeply: her isolation, the beauty of a sunrise, background noise, the tidy formation of geese in flight. She knows that she must move beyond her sharpened sensory perceptions and her tendency to repeatedly overthink interactions if she is to appear as those she cannot avoid expect.

After a spell in hospital Rachel is discharged and returns to her empty flat. She forms a relationship with a man from downstairs which Iris attempts to weave into a form that she finds pleasing. Rachel insists that elements of the truth as she sees it be made clear.

The setting of the story changes as the narrative progresses. The true and fictional accounts intertwine offering questions of what is memory and what desire.

This is a complex novel with moments of clarity offering hints as to the cause of the women’s mental distress. What is happening can at times be bewildering but is intriguing to read. The women’s quest for social normalcy remains hauntingly elusive, the personal cost of their mental breakdown becoming clear. It is interesting to consider how normal anyone truly is inside their own head; if given the option who would choose to start again.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Holland House.

Book Review: The Outrun

theoutrun

The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot, recently won the 2016 Wainwright Prize, this after being shortlisted for the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize. Although I would not normally be drawn to read memoirs, the judges’ comments persuaded me to pick this one up. I am very glad I did.

Amy was born and raised on a farm on the remote island of mainland Orkney. Her father suffered mental health issues which triggered psychotic episodes so severe he would, from time to time throughout her childhood, be sectioned under the Mental Health Act and removed to a secure unit in Aberdeen. Her mother was a Charismatic Christian whose Church influence and disciplines led to Amy developing a strong aversion to religion. Her parents divorced after her father had an affair.

As an adolescent Amy eschewed what she regarded as a subtle conspiracy to present Orkney as an island paradise. She describes herself as:

“a physically brave and foolhardy child […] Later I plunged myself into parties – alcohol, drugs, relationships and sex – wanting to taste the extremes, not worrying about the consequences, always seeking sensation and raging against those who warned me away from the edge. My life was rough and windy and tangled.”

As a teenager she wanted nothing more than to leave the island, dreaming of glittering success and excitement in London. When she got there she immersed herself in a social whirl fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Over a hedonistic decade her life spiralled out of control. Eventually she determined to undo the damage she was inflicting upon herself and enrolled in rehab, taking steps to manage her alcoholism. She returned to the islands to recuperate, not expecting to stay.

The book opens with this return, with her visiting the farm she grew up on. Her story is told from the perspective of a recovering alcoholic looking back on events that brought her to where she is today. Woven into her tale is the island, its weather and wildlife, history and topography, as much an influence on what she is and was as any people she has known or choices she has made.

It is a study of nature and of life. Amy is aware of how the land was formed, how it affects what it supports with all changing and adapting over time. Yet still there are events that cannot be fully prepared for – asteroids, severe storms, addiction. She writes of the place of which she is a part.

She spends a winter on Papay, a small island north of the mainland, with a population of seventy. She describes how a community such as this gets by:

“Here I have been mixing with people of all ages and backgrounds – we have to – whereas in London I was in a bubble. I went to the city to meet new people, to expand my ideas and social circles, but ended up meeting people more and more like myself. We curated our experiences into ever narrower subsections until we were unlikely to encounter anything that made us uncomfortable.”

Amy’s parents came to Orkney from the South of England so, although she was born there, she was still considered an incomer. With so many young people choosing to leave incomers are now welcomed as necessary to keep the small communities viable. Just as wildlife must adapt to change to survive so too must people.

Amy enjoys the apps and information available via modern technology. She keeps in touch with life beyond the island through the internet:

“Many of them I’ve never met in person but we’ve vaguely followed each other’s lives for years. Often I feel as if my real life is inside the computer while my time back in Orkney and the people I see here are just a temporary intrusion. I know people on Twitter I’ve never met better than people I’ve sat opposite for months at work or people I went to school with.”

Amy watches the skies, swims in the sea and takes long walks. She describes the land and the wildlife she encounters, recalling the history of the place and the changes over time. She considers her own existence alongside that of the birds and sea creatures whose habits and habitats she studies and presents. The story told is poignant and perceptive but it is the quality of the prose which sets this book apart.

The writing is sublime. This is a memoir but also an appreciation of the nature of which we are all a part. There is raw beauty but also acknowledgement that change is inevitable. Amy chose to adapt to survive.

Book Review: Playthings

Alex-Pheby--Playthings

“Not at all, Herr Schreber. You do not seem cured at all. But I don’t imagine there is anything much I can do to cure you. I can bring you here and you can see how it is that everything is quite sensible and ordinary. I can help you see that your anxieties are exaggerations of very simple and commonplace problems that a man might have. […] But I cannot make you see what is in front of you.”

Playthings, by Alex Pheby, is written from the point of view of a retired German judge, Daniel Paul Schreber, who, upon finding his wife collapsed on the floor of their parlour, becomes psychotically agitated. Paul suffered from what was then diagnosed as dementia praecox, which today is known as paranoid schizophrenia. Being taken inside the head of a man with this illness is disturbing, but the author does so with aplomb.

Paul Schreber was born in 1842, in Leipzig, Saxony. He was the son of a successful physician who founded and ran the Orthopaedic Institute in which Paul and his four siblings were raised. His father was a pedagogue, demanding that all in his home adhere to a strict routine. He raised his son to believe that boys should be manly and energetic, and that the poor or deformed, including those he treated at his institute, were lesser beings.

Paul Schreber suffered three major psychotic episodes in his life, describing the second in a memoir which became an influential book in the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis thanks to its interpretation by Freud (the memoir has become a key text for students of psychology and modern and social and cultural history). Alex Pheby has taken the known facts and woven them into a compelling and compassionate account of how it would be to live with this illness.

Early on in the book, when Schreber is wandering the streets, he encounters members of the public whom he talks to from the confusion his reality has become. He frightens and appalls them, pushing them aside as insubstantial, inconsequential objects. He is intent on pursuing what to him seems a valid response to a skewed world.

At times this world becomes two dimensional; familiar people and places appear flimsy, ripples in space.

“His house was not there. Neither were the trees. No railings. No streetlamps. In their place were representations of these things. The objects […] they were changed […] they were all wrong. […] all these things were there, but when Schreber came close and put his cold fingertips to them they were smooth as pieces of letter paper and just as thin […] all utterly false.”

Schreber’s reality will often digress from that which those around him can see. People appear, who talk to him of his past, who know things that they should not. They remind him of incidents which he finds embarrassing or upsetting. They force him to acknowledge facts he has difficulty facing.

Much of what Schreber does and says during his time in hospital is wiped from his memory. He loses days, weeks, sometimes months at a time. During his more lucid moments he looks back on his life and the reader learns of his childhood, snapshots of significant moments. There are fleeting references to incidents which disturb his equilibrium, memories which he has buried in the basement of his mind.

Schreber’s family struggle to cope with what he has become. His daughter wishes to bring him home but his wife fears she would be unable to cope. She worries that he will write another memoir and embarrass them further. His first contained wild imaginings from his extreme delusional state, although he did not accept that they were delusions. He now denies that he ever had such thoughts.

This book allows the reader to see not only the patient’s struggles and fears but also the impotence of those around, however worthy their aims. Solutions acceptable to society involve locking the patient away, physically or pharmaceutically. With no cure available it is possible to empathise with all involved.

An incredible work of fiction, all the more fascinating for being based on an actual case. The writing is taut, intense, the everyday world a phantom which Schreber tries so desperately to attain. His disturbance of mind is not so much explained as experienced. This story is powerful and moving; I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the humanity behind mental illness.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Galley Beggar Press.