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.

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Book Review: The Outrun

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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.