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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New Release Aussie Award Winner “The Better Son”: Siblings, Secrets and Spelunking:

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the-better-son

Today I’ve got an award winning Tasmanian tale for you that runs the gamut of historical fiction, contemporary family drama and literary fiction in an absorbing and darkly unfolding narrative.  We received a copy of The Better Son by Katherine Johnson from Ventura Press for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

1952. Tasmania. The beautiful green, rolling hills of the dairy town Mole Creek have a dark underside — a labyrinthine underworld of tunnels that stretch for countless miles, caverns the size of cathedrals and underground rivers that flood after heavy rain. The caves are dangerous places, forbidden to children. But this is Tasmania — an island at the end of the earth. Here, rules are made to be broken.

For two young brothers, a hidden cave a short walk from the family farm seems the perfect escape from their abusive, shell-shocked father — until the older brother goes missing. Fearful of his father, the younger and more vulnerable Kip lies about what happened. It is a decision that will haunt him his whole life.

Fifty years later, Kip — now an award-winning scientist — has a young son of his own, but cannot look him without seeing his lost brother, Tommy. On a mission of atonement, he returns to the cave they called Kubla to discover if it’s ever too late to have a second chance. To go back and set things right. To be the father you never had.

Although this is a bit heavier going than my usual fare, I couldn’t help but be drawn into The Better Son by the imagery of epic landscapes and the gritty, hands-on experiences of Kip and his brother Tommy.  The book begins with a glimpse into Kip’s life now, the reader following along as he sets out to right a wrong about which we currently know nothing.  From here, we are plunged back into the turbulent world of Tasmania in post-war 1952, where returned servicemen try to pick up normal life where they left it to go to war and kids are workers, risk-takers and the repository of their parents’ shortcomings.

The section describing the boys’ childhood I found to be quite harrowing at times.  Tommy is the titular better son and enjoys his father’s constant favour, while Kip is left in the cold and the unfortunate recipient of his father’s ever-present wrath.  This family drama is played out against the boys’ discovery of an untouched cave system in the mountains near their home, and the juxtaposition of the freedom offered by the cave exploration and the oppressive, walking-on-eggshells atmosphere of home is striking.  After the accident, Kip’s home life becomes much worse, but it is at this point that the layers of secrets that have been kept through the years start to come to light, throwing new context onto information we have previously received.

The book flicks between perspectives and time periods – mainly those of Kip’s past and present, as well as the past and present of Squid, the farmhand who lives with the family and has a key role in the boys’ life.  This relieved the heaviness of the content somewhat, but I did feel at times like I just wanted to find out what actually happened to Tommy.  The pacing of the Tommy-mystery part was quite slow, and being the eager beaver that I am when there is a mystery involved, I was ever-hopeful that the answer was around the next page-turn.

There are not a lot of redeeming features to many of the characters in the book, although for the most part, we are privy to the circumstances under which certain decisions and behaviours originated.  One of the interesting things about the tale is that the motivations of almost all of the main characters are kept hidden until close to the end of the story, when secrets are revealed thick and fast and many events start to make more sense.

Again, this is not my usual fare, but I can definitely see why The Better Son has won no less than three awards to date.  It’s a tightly woven exploration of relationships, secrets and regrets with an undercurrent of self-sacrifice and the tiniest slivers of hope, set against the dramatic and deadly landscape of Tasmania’s mountain regions.  If you are looking for something to draw you in and make you feel like an interloper in the rocky lives of an ordinary Australian family of the 1950s, you should definitely give this one a go.

Until next time,

Bruce

Memoir as Fiction: Black British…

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black british

We’re having a bit of a change of pace today on the shelf with some historical adult fiction that reads like a memoir, written by an Australian author and set in 1960s India during a time of social upheaval.  With India being one of the countries in whose history we are particularly interested (the other, of course, at the moment, being Japan), it would have been remiss of us not to get our collective paws on Black British by Hebe De Souza.  We were lucky enough to snag a copy from Ventura Press for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In the turbulent years that follow the British Empire’s collapse in India, rebellious and inquisitive Lucy de Souza is born into an affluent Indian family that once prospered under the Raj. Known as Black British because of their English language and customs, when the British deserted India Lucy’s family was left behind, strangers in their own land.

Now living isolated from the hostile locals who see her family as remnants of an oppressive regime, a young Lucy grows up in the confines of their grand yet ramshackle home located in the dry, dispirited plains of Kanpur. But when it is time to start her education, Lucy finds herself angry and alone, struggling to find her place in this gentle country ravaged by poverty and hardship, surrounded by girls who look like her but don’t speak her language. Encouraged by her strong-minded mother and two older sisters, as she matures the ever-feisty Lucy begins to question the injustices around her, before facing a decision that will change the course of her life forever.

Black British is, for the most part, a thinly-disguised memoir dressed up as fiction.  The story revolves around a woman who has returned to her ancestral home and ends up telling her life story to a stranger who asks a simple enough question: “Where do you come from, lady?”  The majority of the tale occurs in 1960s India, with extremely brief flashes back to the original chatting pair at the end of each chapter to link the sections together.

While I enjoyed the book, narrated by thinker and independent spirit Lucy, the youngest of three sisters living a comparatively wealthy upbringing as English-speaking, private school-attending young ladies surrounded by great swathes of people living in poverty, it was not the suspenseful and tumultuous ride suggested by the blurb.  I was expecting a lot more insight into the social upheaval of the time, but most of the story takes place within the walls of Lucy’s family’s compound and the girls are largely shielded from their family’s precarious social position and its implications by the adults in their lives.  Basically, I wanted the danger to feature more largely in the telling of a story that sees Lucy go from her early years of schooling to the cusp of adulthood with nary a scary experience to report – except for an overzealous monkey intruder and a very hairy cab ride after she ventures as a young adult into the community with her father.

Even though the book didn’t end up being quite as exciting as I expected, it remains an absorbing snapshot of a time and place undergoing rapid and permanent social change.  As English-speaking Catholics, Lucy’s family are well outside what was considered typical in her community and the struggles of being the outsider, even in one’s own home, are thoroughly explored. The prominent motif throughout the book is the security provided by a loving family unit and the ways in which adults nurture the enquiring minds of young people, even in situations that will cause the young person to move up a rung on the ladder of social maturity.

The book deals with a number of social issues including domestic abuse and the place of people identifying as homosexual in an unforgiving culture and time, and as the reader experiences these issues through Lucy’s eyes, it is clear that situations that one might consider black and white, move through every shade of grey when considered in a larger social context.  The implications for individuals of their life choices – whether to remain in an unhappy marriage or relegate oneself to a life of hardship, for instance – are offered as fodder to fuel Lucy’s own looming crisis: to remain in the only home she knows, despite her outsider status and the ever-present threat of violence and hardship, or leave her roots behind for the sake of building a comfortable future.

This is certainly a book that focuses on familial relationships as a means for exploring the wider social conflicts that influence the decisions we make as individuals.  As a fictional memoir, it is engaging and the characters are fleshed out and authentic.  I would have liked to have seen more made of the Lucy of “twenty-one years later”.  The tiny flashes we get of the Lucy who has returned to her homeland in search of belonging felt a bit contrived, as so much of the focus was on the period set in the 1960s, and I would have liked to have been privy to what Lucy did with, at least, some of her life since her family’s decision to move away.  Nevertheless, this is a strong debut from De Souza and I would be interested in seeing what she comes up with next – particularly something that is wholly fictional.

If you are looking for historical fiction that reads like a memoir and places an emphasis on growing up as an outsider in one’s own land, you should certainly give Black British a look.

Until next time,

Bruce