It’s time to unleash my psyche again as I deconstruct another book in a Good, Sad and Quirky review. Today’s book is the second by Gavin Extence, author of The Universe Versus Alex Woods, which I reviewed a while back here. The Mirror World of Melody Black deals with similarly difficult topics as that prior book and engages the same warmth and humour, but in a much-different context. I (excitedly!) received a copy of the book from the publisher via Netgalley. Let’s begin.
When Abby crosses the hallway to ask her neighbour for a key ingredient in that night’s dinner, she does not expect to find said neighbour dead in his armchair. As this unexpected discovery segues into the usual official processes that accompany such a death, Abby is interested to notice that, despite living in close proximity to her neighbour – Simon – his death, and Abby’s role in its discovery, bring up barely any emotional response for her. From this point, Abby begins to explore, through her freelance journalism, why this might be so. Is increasing urbanisation to blame for this isolation amidst a crowded city? And what do monkeys have to do with it? As Abby delves into this mildly intriguing (for her) personal experience, her life begins to spiral out of control – from the heady, euphoric highs of hypomania, to the catatonic lows of depression. The Mirror World of Melody Black explores what it is to be human – and to be crazy – in the context of modern, urban living.
Before I even get to the content, I have to note that once again the cover designer for Extence’s work has outdone themselves. After the beautiful green vista of The Universe Versus Alex Woods, we are now treated to this scintillating blue mosaic. Gorgeous.
I think I can safely declare, after having read both Extence’s offerings, that I am now a confirmed fan of his work. I really enjoyed the engaging first person viewpoint (Abby’s, unsurprisingly) that drove the story. From the moment she forces (innocently) her way into her neighbour’s flat, I regarded Abby warmly and despite her incessant smoking (a filthy habit), wanted only the best for her. As in his last work, Extence has once again managed to include a wide range of interesting characters as the narrative unfolds. None of these is particularly well-developed, the focus being on Abby herself and her inner journey, but special mention must go to the slightly bemused, but ever-so-sporting Professor Caborn, and the no-holds-barred poet Miranda Frost, whom we should all aspire to emulate. Especially with the living in isolation with a couple of cats thing.
The book was just the right length too, I felt. There are a number of distinct sections to Abby’s story and while they each change the tone and focus of the novel, Extence has achieved a nice balance with pacing so that the plot isn’t slowed down at any particular point.
There were only two things on which I could metaphorically mark this book down. The first is a personal quirk, for which the author can’t really be held responsible, but I will bring it up anyway. Abby and her sister – grown women, both – refer to their father as Daddy. There is nothing I find more annoying…well, actually there are plenty of things, but let’s just go with this melodramatic pronouncement for the moment…than grown people referring to their parents in such childish terms. Particularly as Abby doesn’t dote on her father, or have any kind of relationship with him really. It seemed a bit odd to me that someone of Abby’s independent calibre would use such a term of endearment for such a man. Personal quirk, but there you are.
The other thing about which I was mildly brought down was the fact that there is quite a significant section of the tale during which Abby is confined in a psychiatric ward. As mental health and illness are one of our major interests around the shelf, we have read an awful lot of works featuring psychiatric wards, both fictional and otherwise, and reading about Abby’s time on the ward felt a bit samey, and did dull my enthusiasm just a tiny bit. I do acknowledge however, that this is due to the fact that (a) I’ve read a stack of books about psych wards and (b) speaking from personal experience, there isn’t a wild degree of variety in the way that people experience such an institutionalisation. So really, there was nothing wrong with this section of the book, I just found it a bit tiresome, having had the feeling that I’d seen (and read) it all before.
The most unexpected part of this book for me actually appeared after the story had ended, in an author’s note, in which Extence details his own experiences with hypomania. As interesting as his bizarre and ambitious ideas were during this period of his life, I was intrigued more by the fact that most of the people around him didn’t notice that his behaviour was indicative of some kind of mental disturbance. (Although admittedly they could be forgiven for this on the banana point. Bananas are awesome). I found this remarkably interesting because I have heard tell from professionals in the mental health field that it is not unusual for people to be in manic or even psychotic or delusional states for quite some considerable time before anyone close to them actually twigs to the fact that they are indeed manic, or psychotic, or delusional. You fleshlings are so endearing when you’re pretending everything is normal when it so clearly isn’t.
The book also features Lindisfarne island, which you can google if it is unfamiliar to you. The island is quirky enough in itself to warrant a mention, but this was also one of the places that Mad Martha wished to go on her tour of the UK, but never quite made it. To think, she could have been one of those pesky tourists mentioned in the book!
Overall, I’d definitely recommend having a bash at Extence’s new work. If you have read The Universe Versus Alex Woods, then you’ll enjoy being drawn back into the world of a storyteller who does thought-provoking in an understated, yet impactful (is that a word?) way, with dry one-liners to boot. If you haven’t read Extence’s first work, then let this be your introduction to an author that is now firmly ensconced on my auto-covet list. I’d say auto-buy, but money is tight around the shelf since the fleshlings bought a mortgage, so I am now doing more coveting than actual buying.
Until next time,