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‘The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness’ by Lori Schiller ****

The Quiet Room by Lori Schiller, which was first published in 1994, was February’s choice for my Mad Woman’s Book Club.  It sounded incredibly intriguing to me, and created quite a lot of buzz with other members.  Schiller’s account of her schizo-affective disorder, which contains elements of both schizophrenia and manic depression, has been written with the guidance of Amanda Bennett, a Wall Street journalist.

Schiller’s diagnosis was not reached until she was twenty-three years old, and a graduate of Tufts University in Massachusetts.  Prior to this, she is in an almost constant state of turmoil; she wakes up hearing voices whilst at a summer camp when she is seventeen, and they remain with her.  To her strength, she does not let anything interfere with her education, but soon after she has finished her degree and is looking at beginning a career in a shared apartment in New York City that she is immersed within the mental care system.  ‘Along the way,’ writes Schiller, ‘I have lost many things: the career I might have pursued, the husband I might have married, the children I might have had.  During the years when my friends were marrying, having their babies and moving into the houses I once dreamed of living in, I have been behind locked doors, battling the Voices who took over my life without even asking my permission.’  Schiller’s description of these voices is often chilling.9780446671330

We are given Schiller’s opinion of events throughout, as well as those of her parents, brothers, friends, and psychiatrist – pretty much everyone who experienced the worst of it with her.  This use of multiple perspectives helps to fill those memory gaps which Schiller has about some of her darkest points, and gives a fuller picture of the disease and its effects.  The position of retrospect which Schiller, of course, has to take, is fascinating to draw out here.  It comes in a sort of double dose, I suppose; the book was written with several years of distance, but reading it in the 21st century allows one to see just how much things have altered with regard to  treatments being tailored to individuals rather than the mass.  The same can be said for the diagnostic process.  Those I know who have suffered with mental illness suggest that diagnoses are not made in such a trial-and-error manner as they appear to have been in Schiller’s case.

At the beginning of The Quiet Room, I felt quite distanced and wasn’t overly engaged with it.  It changed dramatically at around the fifty page point for me though, after which I could barely put it down.  Schiller’s case is harrowing; it takes an awfully long time for a diagnosis to be reached, and many treatments fail to work for her, either exacerbating her symptoms or making her withdraw further into herself.  One feels an awful lot of empathy for her.

The Quiet Room presents enlightening and scary details about firsthand drug use, which Schiller turns to when the more traditional treatments fail to work for her.  It is certainly a no-holds-barred memoir.  Throughout her ordeal, Schiller shows great bravery; when released after one of her earliest hospitalisations, she applies for a job in a psychiatric hospital.  The reading process involved here is intense, and rather draining at times.  It is difficult to really enjoy a book of this sort, but it is not difficult to admire the writer and her courage in making such a horrific story publicly available.  The Quiet Room is honest and powerful, and a must-read if you are at all interested in mental illness and its effects.

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‘Faces in the Water’ by Janet Frame *****

Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water was a book club pick for January, and a book which I had not expected to love quite as much as I did.  Whilst I have wanted to read it for years, it is a tome which has so far evaded me in bookshops and the like; I had to resort to the Internet to find a copy of it.

From the outset, I was immediately captivated.  We are effectively living inside protagonist Istina Mavet’s head, as she negotiates the mental hospital in which she is incarcerated.  As this account is based upon Frame’s own experiences, there is an added edge of horror to the whole.  Frame’s writing is striking and beguiling, and every sentence is memorable: ‘I will write about the season of peril.  I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world, drifting away through a violet-coloured sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears’.  Istina’s voice is sharp, and her ideas verge upon the theatrical: ‘I was not yet civilized; I traded my safety for the glass beads of fantasy’, and ‘9781844084616I swallowed a stream of stars; it was easy…’.

Frame’s account is vividly appealing particularly when she discusses the outside world, which is barred to Istina and her peers, and the whole is so well paced – for instance, the passage in which Istina discusses the dangers left behind ‘all the doors which lead to and from the world’.  There is a dreamlike element ever-present within, and one can pick out nods to various fairytales and other childhood stories too: ‘… I dream and cannot wake, and I am cast over the cliff and hang there by two fingers that are danced and trampled on by the Giant unreality’.

Despite this, Istina is still poignant and to the point – as well as unarguably chilling – when discussing the doctors and nurses who walk the corridors of the hospital: ‘Every morning I woke in dread, waiting for the day nurse to go on her rounds and announce from the list of names in her hand whether or not I was for shock treatment, the new and fashionable means of quieting people and of making them realize that orders are to be obeyed and floors are to be polished without anyone protesting and faces are made to be fixed into smiles and weeping is a crime’.

As readers, we are immediately aware of the never-ending, and frankly terrifying, cycle of waiting for Electroshock Therapy every day.  Frame really pulls the innards of the institution out to be looked at by us, the outsiders, who do not have to live with the consequences of being deemed unsafe within the wide society.  She lays the life of the mental hospital bare; yes, there is an element of retrospect and historical contextualisation at play here, but it does not serve to make the scenes which Istina describes any less appalling.

The stream-of-consciousness style of narration, as well as the use of fragmented prose and fractured memories, allow the story to come through in all of its horror.  Istina is fascinatingly complex, and oh-so-real.  The novel itself is stunning and hard-hitting, and not one which can be read lightly, or without dedication from the reader.  Faces in the Water is undeniably intense, and reading it is, at points, decidedly exhausting, but when an author reminds you this much of the utterly wonderful Shirley Jackson, you know that you really should read her entire back catalogue as soon as you are able to get your hands on it.

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‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift ***

Getting my hands on a copy of this book was rather difficult.  There was a one hundred and twenty-person strong waiting list in my home library system, and I felt guilty trying to procure a full-price copy whilst on a book buying ban.  My patience (yes, for once I had some) paid off, and I was able to borrow it from a Glasgow library by just walking into a branch and locating it on the shelf.  Wonders shall never cease.

9781471155239Mothering Sunday was a choice for mine and the excellent Katie’s Chai and Sheep book club, and both of us very much liked the premise when the book was co-selected.  At the time of picking it up, it seemed fitting; I had just been in a three-hour induction session led by one of my dissertation supervisors, whose current specialism is in daily novels.  This marked my first foray into Swift’s work too; he has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I was unsure as to which book of his I should begin with.  Then this incredibly hyped, very popular (in my home county, at least!) novella came along, and I hoped that it would provide a good introduction to his work.

The novella’s setting is Mothering Sunday in March 1924: ‘It wasn’t June, but it was a day like June.  And it must have been a little after noon’.  Jane Fairchild, ‘orphan and housemaid’, has nothing with which to occupy her time on this, the day in which maids nationwide were allowed the day off so that they could visit their mothers.  The blurb which accompanies the book is rather intriguing, particularly with regard to the questions which it asks: ‘How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold?’  It goes on to praise the novel highly, as ‘constantly surprising, joyously sensual and deeply moving’, and declares it ‘Graham Swift at his thinking best’.

Paul, beloved sole remaining son of the well-to-do Cunningham family, has been having clandestine liaisons with Jane for quite some time, but on this Sunday, the pair being the only two in the house after his parents travel ‘to Henley for lunch’, things escalate, and they make love in Paul’s bedroom.  The aftermath of the act is what Swift appears to be interested in: ‘… and she wasn’t going to say, now he was on his feet and the decision all but made, “Please, don’t go.  Please, don’t leave me.”  She was disqualified from the upper world in which such dramas were staged.  She had her lowly contempt for such stuff anyway.  As if she couldn’t have used – but she wasn’t his wife, it was all the other way round – a different, quieter but fiercer language.  Or just the bullet of a look.’

The opening sentence of Mothering Sunday marvellously sets both the scene and the historical period: ‘Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid…’.  Some of Swift’s imagery is just lovely; for instance, when he writes: ‘The shadows from the latticework in the window slipped over him like foliage’.

Whilst I wasn’t blown away by the whole, I did find the class divides which Swift portrayed rather interesting.  His descriptions were largely well evoked, and did work well with the story, but I found some of his prose rather jarring in its style.  I’m unsure as to whether Swift is an author I’ll pick up again; I certainly wasn’t as enamoured with this as I believed I would be at the outset.

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‘Midsummer Night in the Workhouse’ by Diana Athill ***

Diana Athill’s Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was a book club book which Katie and I both agreed had to be part of our revised 2016 reading list.  The short stories collected here were originally written between 1958 and 1962, and were published by Persephone in 2011; we were both understandably rather excited to read it.

9781903155820Many of the stories collected here depict couples, or those destined to become romantically involved, and sex is a strong – and occasionally surprising – theme.  Athill places more emphasis upon the physicality rather than the psychology of the act, and whilst the latter is mentioned from time to time, it feels as though animal urges interested her far more than the thought patterns which they stem from.

The title story here did intrigue.  In ‘Midsummer Night at the Workhouse’, Cecilia Mathers has been sent to the artists’ retreat of Hetherston Hall by her publisher, who ‘thought her pretty and was worried that she could afford to eat only baked beans’.  Being packed off does not have the best of effects upon Cecilia; with five other writers in residence, she feels isolated and unable to perform her craft: ‘For some months she had believed that she did not feel like beginning a second novel, or even a story, because she was so poor and harassed.  Given peace and lamb chops for lunch… but now that she was given peace and not just lamb chops but roast chicken and asparagus, and summer pudding with cream, she could still find nothing to write’.  Athill goes on to describe Cecilia’s issues with writing: ‘Shut in her room, she would look at her typewriter with loathing and would sometimes even cry’.

Cecilia’s situation has been well – and touchingly – wrought.  Hers is a believable dilemma for a writer to face, and one cannot help but wonder if Athill has placed autobiographical touches into the portrait of her creation: ‘It was not for want of trying.  She had now been there for five weeks and in that time she had painfully contrived a synopsis of a novel – a structure of cardboard and glue which would clearly fall to pieces if touched.  She had also rewritten a story once scrapped and had seen why she had scrapped it’.

‘An Unavoidable Delay’, in which an Englishwoman named Rose takes a holiday by herself to Yugoslavia in order to reevaluate her marriage, has merit; there is perhaps more psychology to her character portrait and situation in life when compared to other stories here.  Athill shrewdly displays the way in which: ‘There had been a great quarrel before she started on this holiday alone and she had hoped that now Neville would say that she had gone too far and mean it.  At the beginning she used to think: Oh, why won’t he make up his mind to throw me out?’

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is not my first brush with Athill’s work.  I picked up her memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, in an Oxfam bookshop last year, swayed as I was by the positive reviews on its cover.  Whilst it did contain some interesting ideas, and elegant phrasing, I felt as though it lacked depth in places.  I hate to say, too, that there seemed to me to be a sweeping air of pretension over the whole.  This is exactly the same opinion which I have come away with after sampling her short stories; they are interesting, sometimes shrewd, and often very well written, but they just did not strike me as memorable – or realistic, in some places – slices of life, or character portraits which will sit with me for a long time to come.

There is a strong emphasis upon art here; many of the protagonists, and some of the secondary characters, practice such things as painting or writing as their professions.  This serves to provide a thematic link from one tale to the next, and nicely demonstrates the importance which Athill placed upon the arts.

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A wonderfully mischievous Diana Athill (from http://www.hungertv.com)

Despite very much enjoying the preface to the Persephone edition, in which Athill speaks of her career as editor at a London publishing house, the majority of the stories here just did not grab me as I imagined they would.  I had no real sense that Athill’s works were mini masterpieces in the same way as I have almost immediately had with other Persephone short stories – Diana Gardner and Dorothy Whipple’s collections, for instance.  I found that many of the tales in Midsummer Night at the Workhouse ended rather abruptly, or were lacking in terms of plot.  Similar relationship details and scenes were repeated from one story to the next at times, and there was no real variation to the whole in consequence.  The tales were formulaic; barely a single one jumped out and grabbed me, or surprised me in any way, and I found this a real shame.  I had expected to be wowed by Athill’s writing, praised highly as it is, but have come away feeling more than a little disappointed.

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Book Club: ‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood ****

The second book club choice which the lovely Susie at Girl With Her Head In a Book and I have decided upon is Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.    Whilst I have found some of Atwood’s work a little hit and miss in the past, I was very much looking forward to engrossing myself in this, an incredibly appealing-sounding historical novel.  Of all her works, the thread of story within Alias Grace is the one which captured my attention the most.

Alias Grace was shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and was the recipient of the Canadian Giller Prize.  The novel has received wondrous acclaim from reviewers since its publication in 1996. It centres around the true story of Grace Marks, a servant who was arrested for her ‘cold-blooded’ part in two notorious murders in July 1843, at the age of sixteen.  Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy farmer in Ontario, and his housekeeper-cum-mistress, Nancy Montgomery, were shot and strangled respectively.  Grace’s co-worker and accomplice, a twenty-year-old stable hand named James McDermott, was hung for his part in proceedings.  Grace, on account of her sex and young age, was committed to an asylum in Kingston, Ontario, where she remained for thirty years.

Atwood is masterful at using a variety of different techniques to set the scene throughout.  As well as the story told in Grace’s own words – or, at least, Atwood’s imagining of them – we also have a narrative based upon a fictional doctor named Simon Jordan, who is researching Grace’s case.  Materials such as newspaper articles and poems have also been used to further shape the historical context.

Alias Grace is beautifully written.  Grace’s voice particularly has been incredibly tautly crafted, and Atwood’s portrayal of her feels realistic from the very beginning: ‘Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: murderess, murderess.  It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.  Murderer is merely brutal.  It’s like a hammer, a lump of metal.  I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices’.  Grace is a captivating protagonist; although we know from the first what she has been convicted of, an awful lot of sympathy is soon created for her on behalf of the reader.  Atwood is empathetic towards her young character, and makes her come to life once more upon the page.

Whilst I didn’t adore Alias Grace, it is certainly an incredibly well-crafted – and even quite moving – novel, and it is my favourite of Atwood’s books to date.  I particularly admired the way in which she tied so many historical elements together – the use of historical quilt designs and foodstuffs, for example.  Alias Grace, despite its length, is a gripping and fast-moving novel, which is sure to appeal to any reader with an interest in crime or general historical fiction.

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Book Club Announcement: ‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood

This month, the lovely Susie from Girl With Her Head In a Book and I read Wuthering Heights together, and both blogged about it as part of a new book club venture.  Thanks so much to everyone who took part!  We have decided on Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace as our second book club choice, and hope to both post our reviews of it at the end of February.

To whet your appetite, I have included the novel’s blurb below:

“Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’ Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.”

Please let us know if you plan to join in, and we can’t wait to discuss Alias Grace with you!  You can read Susie’s post, which includes links to other Wuthering Heights reviews here.

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New Book Club: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte

I have been corresponding with the lovely Susie at Girl With Her Head in a Book of late about starting a little online book club.  We have decided that our first ‘trial’ book, as it were, should be one which both of us have very much enjoyed in the past, and one which we were keen to re-read.  We have therefore decided that our inaugural book club choice will be Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Susie and I would love as many people to join in with our project as possible.  We have decided upon the first week in January to post our Wuthering Heights reviews, so that we aren’t too bogged down in Christmas things, and to give everyone else a chance to read the novel too.  If you’re planning to join in, please let us know!