Thinly disguised as fiction, Default Setting is Will Green’s autobiographical account of a nervous breakdown. I’ve made it a rule to avoid self-published novels but the pitch for this one was so powerful that I agreed to take a look at it. Default Setting is prefaced with a grim quote from the Mental Health Foundation: ‘One in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year’, a quote much bandied about during Mental Health Awareness Week with which the publication date for Green’s novel coincided. I’m a little late with this review but it seems to me that we need more than just one week a year to jolt our awareness of this worrying statistic.
Edward’s breakdown is precipitated by the departure of his beloved girlfriend, Jess. Jess is the reason that Edward has been sober for eighteen months, the person on whom he’s hung all his hopes and dreams – far too great a burden for one woman to bear. When she leaves him, his world implodes. He heads to the nearest off licence and grabs the cheapest bottle he can find, ignoring the kindness of the man behind the till. Next, Edward turns to self-harm to blank out his overwhelming pain: ignoring the shame he feels at the many scars on his arms, he cuts himself. Before long he’s in the pub where he bumps into Simon, never knowingly uncoked-up. So begins a self-destructive spiral in which Edward abuses his friends, blacks out, finds himself in all sorts of degrading situations and receives a final warning from his line manager. This is not the first time that his mental health has faltered – his ‘default setting’ is sadness – but it seems to be the most extreme episode, finally landing him in the kind of trouble that gets him sectioned which may be the saving of him.
Written in Edward’s voice, Green’s narrative is urgent, immediate and graphic. He takes us with Edward on his descent, showing us the shame, guilt and misery of being perpetually caught up in a loop of self-destructive behaviour. He’s unsparingly honest with his readers – we might flinch but he doesn’t – helping us to understand what it’s like to ‘have a head full of bedlam’. It’s a claustrophobic, lonely journey full of desperation but punctuated by the odd flash of much-needed humour. Not an easy read then, but a worthwhile one. The final sentence of the penultimate chapter made me want to punch the air. The press release describes Green as ‘a former alcoholic and mental health sufferer who has successfully beaten his demons’ – hard not to use tired old words like ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ but in this case they seem entirely appropriate.
That’s it from me for a while. We’re off to spend a week in lovely Herefordshire, planning a stroll or two and probably a little light reading.