Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: The ties that bind stretched too far

Cover image Much lauded by the likes of Peter Carey and Colum McCann, Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone is a nuanced portrait of a family trying to cope with the emotional depredations caused by not one but two of its members grappling with mental illness. It follows the family from its beginnings when Margaret and John meet at a party in 1960s London to the present day and a new start.

Almost two years after that first meeting, Margaret returns from visiting her parents in America to find that John has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. This is not his first episode of mental illness: he suffered a breakdown when he was a student at Oxford but has told Margaret nothing about it. Undeterred and in love, Margaret marries him gritting her teeth in the face of his mother’s chilly welcome into the family.  We first meet her seventeen years after that London party, living in a small New England town. She and John have three children: Michael, the eldest, precocious, endlessly talkative but inward looking; Celia, the sharply intelligent middle child in alliance with Michael against Alec, the butt of his older brother’s constant barbs. They live in a rented house – their belongings in storage in England until John’s American assignment is finished – and holiday in a borrowed cabin in Maine. When a second job in the UK comes to an end, the family is uprooted again but Michael begs to return to London, apparently to complete his schooling with friends. While Michael is in England, John’s health spirals into a catastrophic decline. As the family struggles to recover from this crushing blow, it becomes clear that Michael is bedevilled by his own illness. Having begun with a painful loss, the novel ends on a note of hope with a new start and the hope of recovery.

Haslett narrates his novel through the voices of the five family members, flitting back and forth over the decades since Margaret and John first met. Each character’s voice sings out strongly, offering their own insight into the family’s story and the ways in which John’s and Michael’s illnesses have played into their lives and relationships. Alec is uncomfortable with intimacy, Celia works as a youth counsellor and convinces herself that her partner will leave her while Margaret finds herself cast in a caring role after years of denial. Haslett’s writing is striking: ‘I’m not a doll in the house of my mother’s imaginings’ thinks the young Margaret, a continent away from home. The loneliness of mental illness is captured vividly in John: ‘The monster you lie with is your own. The struggle endlessly private’. The quiet divvying up between siblings is beautifully caught in Alec’s relationship with Celia: ‘We monitored each other’s responsibility for the family, watchful for any sign of defection, as though we were on a desert island together, each surreptitiously building an escape raft that the other occasionally burned’. Michael’s increasingly manic sections are darkly funny, becoming sharply poignant as his illness takes hold and his medication fails. It’s a carefully layered construction, both wrenching and convincing. Those of us blessed with good mental health should count our lucky stars.

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