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‘This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression’ by Daphne Merkin ****

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression is, says its blurb, Daphne Merkin’s ‘rare, vividly personal account of what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression.’  This Close to Happy is Merkin’s fourth book, following two works of non-fiction and a novel.  Memoirs and illness narratives such as this have been rather popular in recent years, and are, I feel, incredibly important tools for helping those who do not suffer with depression or linked mental illnesses to empathise with those who do.  I am in the former camp in this respect, but know a lot of people who have struggled, or are struggling, with various forms of depression and anxiety, and want to ensure that I can be as well informed as to what others are going through every day as is possible.

There is still a stigma and a taboo about mental illnesses such as depression, and Merkin sees the importance of being as transparent as she can in her account, in order to show that one cannot simply ‘man up’ or ‘pull oneself together’; depression is as serious and life-threatening a condition as a lot of physical ailments.  Of this, she writes: ‘In spite of our everything-goes, tell-all culture, so much of the social realm is closed against too much real personal disclosure…  We live in a society that is embarrassed by interiority…’.

9780374140366Merkin has been hospitalised numerous times, most poignantly in grade school for childhood depression, for the postpartum depression which she suffered when she had her daughter Zoe, and following the death of her mother, when she suffered with ‘obsessive suicidal thinking’.  From the very beginning, Merkin is as honest as she can possibly be about the tumultuous thoughts which tumble around in her mind on a daily basis, and the effects which this has upon her life.

Merkin continually compares herself, at least at first, to others, and how her mindset stops her from being able to cope in the world.  In her introduction, she writes the following, which gives one an insight into how she sees herself, and her place within society: ‘Now you can no longer figure out what it is that moves other people to bustle about out there in the world, doing errands, rushing to appointments, picking up a child from school.  You have lost the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together, nothing adds up and all you can think about is the new nerve of pain that your mind has become…’.

In the first chapter, Merkin writes of “Everywoman”, describing certain scenarios and obvious reactions to them.  After her creative and insightful passages which are written in this way, she posits herself, ‘of course’, as the person within the example which she gives, and then says, ‘but she might be anyone suffering from an affliction that haunts women almost twice as much as men, even though it is, curiously, mostly men who write about it.’  She goes on to say that the solidarity one finds when discovering that the “Everywoman” exists is comforting to her, as ‘there is solace in the knowledge that company can be found, even in the dark.’

Merkin discusses the difficulties of diagnosing mental illnesses, honing in on her own experiences with depression when she writes the following: ‘If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence – of appetite, energy, sociability – rather than as a presence.’  She also talks quite candidly about her experience of writing such an account, and the length of time which it took – fifteen years in all – from a publisher first asking her to put down her own actuality onto paper, following an article which she wrote for the New York Times.  Her depression acted as a block in this process.  ‘The slaying of ghosts,’ writes Merkin, ‘is never easy, and my ghosts are particularly authoritative, reminding me to keep my head down and my saga to myself.’

I read This Close to Happy directly after finishing Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, which deals with the death of her daughter.  It proved a marvellous continuation in many ways; whilst Merkin and Didion have approached the topic of mental illness differently, and their prose styles are quite unlike one another’s, the continuation of themes certainly brought some cohesion to my reading.  In her introduction, as in Didion’s, Merkin discusses colour and its influence upon her moods, which was one of the most striking discussions within the book for me: ‘They come on, such suicidally colored periods, at times like this – I am writing this in the winter, at my desk in New York City – when the days are short, evening starts early, the sky lacks light, and you have ceased admiring your own efforts to keep going.  Although they can also come on when the day is long and the light never-ending, in early spring or ripest summer.’

Merkin demonstrates, through a series of memories and reflections upon her moods, that she can never be free of her depression, despite peaks in her life, and that she can be struck by symptoms at any point, without the slightest warning.  She examines her past to see whether being the child of Jewish-German immigrants of the Second World War generation altered her character, or whether she would have exhibited such feelings regardless.

This Close to Happy is not the easiest of books to read at times due to its content, but it is a determined and brave memoir, and one which I found very insightful.  To conclude, I admired the way in which Merkin includes rather startling facts about depression, which she prefaces some of her own experiences with.  For instance, 350 million people suffer with depression worldwide, and that, to me, is why books like this should be read by wide audiences; we all need to make an effort to understand one another in our chaotic world.

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‘The Pumpkin Eater’ by Penelope Mortimer ****

I reread Penelope Mortimer’s 1962 novella, The Pumpkin Eater, for my Goodreads book club.  It is a wonderfully vivid and harrowing novella in equal measure, which charts an emotional breakdown, and was published a year before Sylvia Plath’s seminal The Bell JarThe Pumpkin Eater is heavily autobiographical, with its markedly realistic scenes and character development throughout.

One is immediately pulled in to this important book.  The unnamed protagonist, who is identified only through her married surname as Mrs. Armitage, is ‘Everywoman’, really; she has a husband and children, and a large house, with another being built in the countryside.  Her fourth husband makes a great deal of money, but she is not at all fulfilled in her life.  All she sees herself to be fit for is to give birth to one child after another; they, indeed, are not rendered as individuals within26021671 the novella, but are distinguished only by their birth order and fathers – there are the ‘older children’ and ‘Jake’s children’.  Only the eldest of these, a daughter, is given a name – Dinah – and her own singular identity.  Her current husband, too, is Jake, rather a childish moniker for what he is supposed to represent; whilst he has personal freedom afforded both by his profession as a filmmaker and the money this makes them, and by his gender, he is also the main force behind which our narrator feels trapped.

When our narrator tells Jake how much she cares about him, he verbally explodes: ‘”You don’t care about me, all you care about is the bills being paid and the bloody children, that great fucking army of children that I’m supposed to support and work my guts out for, so I can’t even take a bath in peace, I can’t eat a bloody meal without them whining and slobbering all over the table, I can’t even go to bed with you without one of them comes barging in in the middle’.  Her reaction to this is rather interesting; she seems to thrive on being confronted and scolded: ‘He was shouting as though I were a mile away.  His shouts delighted me.’  Jake makes her feel like a burden, essentially, and the affair which he conducts with a much younger woman only serves to exacerbate the crisis which she feels.

The entirety of The Pumpkin Eater is told from the sometimes unbridled perspective of our narrator.  She is at a loss to see her worth, and when we meet her father, we can see why this is perhaps the case.  He has been squashing her emotionally since she was a small child, and the fact that she has established herself as a wife and mother does nothing to alter his opinion of her; he patronises her along with Jake, and makes decisions about sending her children to boarding school, and where the family should live.  She is utterly sidelined, and one can certainly see the reasoning for her deep-set insecurities.  Jake is arguably more like the narrator’s father than she is herself; both are self-obsessed and utterly selfish.

Our narrator first realises that something is wrong with her when she gets into bed beside Jake, who is sleeping: ‘I thought of waking him up, but for the first time I could not touch him.  Thus paralysis, this failure of my will to make my body move, revived all my fear, and I lay there sweating, shaken by great beats of my heart, ignorant as in a first labour but with no instinct, or memory to help me.  It must have been then, I think, that Jake and life became confused in my ind, and inseparable.  The sleeping man was no longer accessible, no longer lovable.  He increased monstrously, became the sky, the earth, the enemy, the unknown.  It was Jake I was frightened of; Jake who terrified me; Jake who in the end would survive.’  Her subsequent breakdown is harrowingly evoked.  Jake, of course, is unsympathetic, asking her: ‘Do you think you’re going to get over this period of your life, because I find it awfully depressing?’.  Jake undoubtedly has a lot of issues too, but as he is a male, he remains unscrutinised by psychologists.

The children occupy an interesting space within the novel; they both hold the narrator together and pull her apart.  They ensure that she has very little time for herself, or to spend with Jake, and demand so much that she is constantly exhausted.  She recognises, however, that she exists for them.

The Pumpkin Eater has been incredibly well handled, and there is an awful lot of depth to it.  The autobiographical elements, which can be found in any of Mortimer’s biographies, make it all the more harrowing.  It also raises an awful lot of questions, particularly in its final paragraph.  The Pumpkin Eater is a wonderful and memorable novella, which feels incredibly modern over fifty years after its initial publication.

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