Tag Archives: Mental illness in fiction

Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: You might as well live

Cover imageRowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut, Harmless Like You, was one of my books of 2016. I loved it for its poignancy leavened with wry humour, and for the striking images shining brightly from its pages. That same deft writing is evident in Starling Days which follows Mina and Oscar from New York to London where Oscar is hoping Mina will find some distraction from what ails her.

Mina is picked up by a patrol car, gazing over the edge of the George Washington Bridge in New York. Her husband comes to collect her, his mind full of memories of her overdose on their wedding night. Mina and Oscar have been together for over ten years but married for just six months. He has never known her well. Her childhood was filled with the sadness of loss, not least of the grandmother who brought her up. Now nearly thirty, her academic career is chequered and her idea for a monograph on women survivors stalled. Oscar’s father offers an opportunity to get Mina away, asking him to oversee the renovation of a set of apartments in London. Oscar works for his father importing sake and exotic beers to the States but their relationship is scratchy. Oscar was brought up by his mother in Britain, the product of a one-night stand. Oscar and Mina try to settle in: Oscar consumed with worry about Mina, she at a loss to know how to occupy herself. Called back to the States on the pretext of business, Oscar is presented with a series of revelations that turns his relationship with his father on its head. Back in London, alone and desperate, Mina turns to the sister of Oscar’s oldest friend for solace. Each, it seems, has decided their future lies elsewhere.

Buchanan’s compassionate, empathetic novel explores the effects of mental illness from both sides of a relationship, switching perspectives between Mina and Oscar. It lays bare both the sheer exhaustion of living with the constant worry of what a beloved partner might do to themselves and the relentless debilitation of a disordered mind. Similar themes run through Buchanan’s debut but her new novel is infused with a deeper melancholy and there are moments of aching sadness:

And she saw herself as if from a great height – this small tattooed woman with the bleached hair crying for her husband’s affection. This small woman dressed to look like a rebel just begging to be held.

Unlike Harmless Like You, there are no slapstick moments such as the hairless therapy cat in its ‘festive jumper’ – although I did think the lovely Benson would make an excellent therapy dog – but the same wry, dark humour brightens the tone:

 There was no word for the woman whose husband your mother had borrowed

Given the nature of its story, this was bound to be a more sombre novel than Buchanan’s first, made all the more so by the heartfelt note at its end in which she addresses readers dealing with their own difficulties:

Every day you try again is an act of bravery. Although this is worthy of pride, you may not feel able to be proud of yourself. But I would like to wish you congratulations on being here today

Amen to that.

Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss: What Ally and Tom did next

Cover imageSarah Moss’s excellent Bodies of Light appeared on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist for its theme of nineteenth century women in medicine earlier this year. Signs for Lost Children is its sequel, picking up Ally and Tom’s story from where Bodies of Light left off. Newly married, they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum – albeit unpaid – and Tom travels to Japan to advise on building lighthouses.

The novel opens with Ally and Tom very much in love. Ally knows that Tom must fulfil his six-month assignment in Japan but dreads a separation made longer by both the voyage and a lucrative commission to seek out Japanese artefacts for a local collector. Ally takes up her post at the Truro asylum, insulted and spurned by the nurses who want no truck with a female doctor, particularly one who thinks that kindness and empathy will help the inmates rather than the rough often brutal treatment they dispense. Lonely, still mourning the sister she believes drowned nine years ago, Ally gives in to her mother’s cajoling, judgemental demands to put her skills to better use in Manchester, briefly suffering a relapse in her own mental health before returning to Cornwall where she is made a surprising offer. Meanwhile, Tom’s loneliness is exacerbated by plunging into a culture of which he knows nothing. Slowly, he comes to understand the beauty of this endlessly puzzling country, opening himself to what had at first seemed its strange customs and forging a friendship with the man assigned as his guide. As the six months come to an end he can hardly bear to leave, no longer longing for home or for Ally, the wife he hardly remembers after such a short time together. These two must find a way back to each other, or lead separate lives.

Moss demonstrates the same eye for a striking phrase in Signs for Lost Children as she did in Bodies of Light: one of the Truro inmates displays ‘breasts flat as empty socks’; Tom’s guide is ‘somehow clothed in self-possession’ despite his nakedness in the communal baths. Her descriptions of the Japanese netsuke Tom buys are exquisite. There are many references to Bodies of Light but so subtly done that they act as little memory joggers for those of us who’ve read it, effortlessly filling out the details of Ally’s troubled early life for those who haven’t. It’s a book which asks big questions, many of which are as relevant now as they were in Ally’s time: What is madness? How does it come about and how should we recognise and treat it? It also has profound points to make about human behaviour and morality: ‘Our labour and our moral worth are not the same thing, for what price kindness?’ thinks Ally of her mother who ceaselessly works for the poor but shows neither affection nor concern for her own daughter, dismissing her ‘nervous complaints’ as self-indulgence. Tom’s and Ally’s stories are told in separate alternating narratives – both equally engrossing – delicately intermeshed by the couple’s longing for each other and the gradual fading of that yearning. It’s a beautifully executed novel, every bit as good as Bodies of Light.

I still haven’t got around to Night Waking in which May, Ally’s sister, first made her appearance in a collection of letters found two hundred years after her death. May trained as a nurse, taking up a position on the Hebridean island of Colsay where she hoped to introduce modern midwifery practices but as readers of Bodies of Light will know, she was also determined to escape her puritanical mother and live life on her own terms. Another book which came to mind while reading Signs for Lost Children is Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady, a history of the treatment of mental illness in women. It’s an uncomfortable, distressing read at times but complements Ally’s experience well for those who’d like to learn more.

Just one more thing to say in what has become a rather long and rambling post: Hats off to the jacket designers. Just as the original cover for Bodies of Light fitted Ally’s father’s arts and crafts work beautifully, so this one is a lovely echo of Tom’s Japanese experience. It’s a thing of delicate beauty.