Adult Fiction Mental Health Novel “In Two Minds”…and I am.

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in two minds

I couldn’t resist the lure of a new novel featuring mental illness and its effects, from one of Australia’s leading psychiatrists, no less, and so here we are today with In Two Minds by Gordon Parker, founder of the Black Dog Institute.  We received our copy from Ventura Press for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Dr Martin Homer is a GP with a naturally sunny disposition. Honourable, attentive and trusted by all of his patients, Martin has only ever loved one woman – his wife, Sarah.

When his mother dies suddenly, Martin’s comfortable life is thrown into complete disarray. After sinking into the black dog of grief and depression, he ascends to new heights in a frenzied, manic high. Now, he’s never felt better!

In between riding his new skateboard around the streets at night and self-medicating from his stash at work, the artificially elated and self-entitled Martin crosses paths with Bella, a beautiful and sexual young woman profoundly damaged by trauma of her own.

In Two Minds takes you on a quirky, rollicking journey that unveils the complexities of mental illness with wit and warmth. Gordon Parker’s impressive career in psychiatry reveals itself through extremely rich descriptions of depression, bipolar and borderline personality characteristics.

It must be said that when you’ve read a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, featuring mental illness of one form or another, things do tend to get a bit samey.  This is one of the reasons I am in two minds about In Two Minds – if this had been the first novel I had read in which the protagonist has a breakdown and ends up in a psychiatric unit, I may have been more interested in the outcome.  Indeed, if I had not had the pleasure of spending some time in a psychiatric hospital myself, I may have been more entranced by the ins and outs of what happens when you are deemed no longer able to manage your own affairs without cocking things up in spectacular fashion.  If you have not had such an experience yourself, and you aren’t elbow deep in the back catalogue of “books about people losing their marbles in various painful and unexpected ways” then you should find In Two Minds to be compelling reading.

Martin Homer is an all-around good bloke.  He loves his wife, is wholeheartedly devoted to his work as a GP and generally sets the standard for good behaviour and personal growth everywhere he goes.  Bella is a woman with a past and a borderline personality disorder (**I’ve always wondered why the “borderline” part is added to the “personality disorder” part of that description, because there ain’t nothin’ “borderline” about Bella’s crazy, vitriolic antics**).  When Martin’s self-medicating after the death of his mother leads to a manic episode, the trajectories of Bella and Martin cross and Martin’s prior grip on his identity, his marriage and his work is shattered.

The story is told in alternating sections between Martin and Bella, with Martin’s story taking the primary position.  Really, this is a story about Martin and Bella is a bit player, albeit one whose back story is essential to the plot for her actions toward Martin to be in any way believable.  The author mentions the Madonna-whore complex early on in the story and all of the women presented here in any detail are indeed Madonnas (Edina, Martin’s mother, and Sarah, Martin’s wife) or whores (Bella, the Trophettes).  Bella’s early history, which the reader discovers at the end of the book, even indicates that she was a literal whore, working as a prostitute.  There was something unsettling about this for me, and I would have liked to have seen a few chapters written from Sarah’s point of view.  It seemed a little unfair to have such a focus on the man-slaying Bella and the existential crisis of Martin (post-mania) and so little focus on the woman who chooses to “stand by her man” as it were, despite the fact that he’s just undergone a major change in personality and behaviour.  In fact, had there been more of a focus on Sarah, this would have been a point that set this novel apart from the multitude that have gone before it; as important as the perspective of the sufferer of mental illness undeniably is, it would be instructive to read something from the point of view of the supporter – the spouse, significant other, family member – of the sufferer.

One thing that really does set this book apart is that it isn’t focused on talking therapy in any way.  Much is made in the early chapters of Martin’s past and the various tragedies and triumphs that shaped who he is.  I was expecting that this information would be somehow revisited later in the book as part of Martin’s recovery, but this wasn’t the case.  Instead, the section of the book dealing with Martin’s recovery is focused almost entirely on the various medications he is treated with, their side effects and the way they interact.  This may explain the slight disconnect I felt between the early parts of the story, in which Martin’s family and Sarah play such a strong role, and the latter parts, in which all of the key stressors and factors that almost certainly factored into Martin’s illness are glossed over in favour of his response to medication.  Even though it wasn’t what I was expecting, this certainly was a point of difference that makes this book stand apart from others on a similar topic.

The author may have even not-so-subtly inserted himself into the story by means of Saxon Marshall, Martin’s treating psychiatrist.  The name of this character struck me as interesting, and this may just be me receiving coded messages through the TV and novels here, but Saxon is the surname of the Master as played by John Simm in David Tennant’s run of Doctor Who, while Marshal is the given name of one of a psychiatrist character in Irvin Yalom’s Lying on the Couch (see below).  I can’t help but wonder if this was a conscious choice of character moniker and if so, what does it say about ol’ Gordon Parker, eh?  (**Probably not much because it’s probably not a conscious naming device, and just me projecting.  It should have been though – mashing the two characters together is quite evocative, imo**).

I was a little confused at the ending of the book.  There is an ambiguous ending for Martin, which I think worked well given we, as readers, leave him so soon after his diagnosis and early recovery.  It was a clever move to end his story at this point and leave us wondering what became of him.  More curious however was the ending of Bella’s narrative trajectory.  Toward the very end of the book, we are privy to even more of Bella’s backstory and the introduction of a new key character in Bella’s life.  I couldn’t get a grasp on why this was included, unless it was only to set up Martin’s ambiguous departure, because it certainly didn’t heighten my empathy for Bella in any way and felt like too much of an information dump after the climax of the story.

Having finished up the book, I had a quick flick through some similar books of my acquaintance and, as I mentioned at the beginning of the review, books featuring mental illness of one kind or another do tend to blend together after a while.  I definitely experienced shades of The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin Extence (female protagonist with bipolar disorder), Terms and Conditions by Robert Glancy (professional male protagonist coming to terms with a change of identity concept and mental trauma), and most obviously, Irvin Yalom’s, Lying on the Couch (multiple psychiatrists go through various psychiatrist-y problems and as in all of Yalom’s work, boobs are mentioned a lot).

If you are looking for a truly original story about the whirlwind of depression, mania and psychosis, then I would suggest trying Kathleen Founds’ brilliant When Mystical Creatures Attack!  If you are an entry level journeyperson regarding novels about mental health or you have an interest in bipolar disorder, depression and mania generally, definitely give In Two Minds a go.

I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge for 2017 in category #51: a book about a difficult topic.  You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

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Thank Goodness it’s TBR Friday!

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TBR Friday

I’ve got a gently odd little offering for today’s climb up Mount TBR.  It’s adult fiction (memoir?) The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide and translated by Eric Selland.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo. They work at home as freelance writers. They no longer have very much to say to one another.

One day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. She is a beautiful creature. She leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again. New, small joys accompany the cat; the days have more light and colour. Life suddenly seems to have more promise for the husband and wife; they go walking together, talk and share stories of the cat and its little ways, play in the nearby Garden. But then something happens that will change everything again.

The Guest Cat is an exceptionally moving and beautiful novel about the nature of life and the way it feels to live it. Written by Japanese poet and novelist Takashi Hiraide, the book won Japan’s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award, and was a bestseller in France and America.

the guest cat

Time on the TBR Shelf:

Probably about a year?  I can’t say exactly as I didn’t buy this one myself.

Acquired:

Received as a birthday gift

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

It’s a very slim tome, so of course I put it off under the logic that as it’s so thin I could pick it up and knock it over anytime.  Also, the sensible, grown up, adultness of the subject matter had me a tiny bit intimidated, even though I asked someone to buy this for me because I wanted to read it.

Best Bits:

  • It’s rare to find such a gentle story in which the content is so limited, yet still engaging: this is literally a man reflecting on his life with his wife and the next-door neighbour’s cat.  I don’t think there’s any massive, deep analogy that I’m missing.  It’s a pretty straightforward reflection on life, relationships and loss. And the habits of cats.
  • The writing is … sublime seems too committed a word, but  maybe majestic could be a good way to describe it.  Majestic without being arrogant.  Rapturous but at the same time, quotidian.  There’s an elevation to the writing which makes the ordinary events being described feel like something important.
  • The book is slim and can be read quite quickly.  Alternatively, the content works well for just taking things a chapter at a time due to the lack of exciting action.
  • If you have a particularly deep love for felines, you will probably delight in the detailed descriptions of the cat’s cute idiosyncracies.
  • There is a section at the back with some notes that give context to some of the events that might be missed or misinterpreted by non-Japanese readers.  I found this quite helpful in re-examining a particular event toward the end.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • The print in this edition is teeny-weeny.
  • Without spoiling the events of the book for you, by the end of the book, the man and his wife seemed a little too attached to the cat to the point that it was interfering with their ability to move on.  Literally move on, since they move house.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

Considering it wasn’t my money that paid for it, yes.  Particularly since it isn’t at all my usual type of read, and therefore it is unlikely that I would ever have bought it for myself.

Where to now for this tome?

I will probably pass it on to someone who will enjoy it. Or possibly sell it at a Suitcase Rummage.

This is another chink off the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted by My Reader’s Block.

Mount TBR 2016

Until next time,

Bruce