After joining a Twitter discussion on representation of mental health issues in YA fiction, I started thinking more about the adult novels I’ve read recently which also cover this ground. Among my random January selections from my ever-growing TBR were Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt (Penguin, 2011) and All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Faber and Faber, 2014), both of which were excellent books in their own right, but fascinating and sympathetic portrayals of mental illness as well.
Mr Chartwell has a brilliantly original premise; expanding on the idea of the Winston Churchill’s “black dog” of depression, Rebecca Hunt pulls off the astounding feat of including an enormous, talking canine in a book without making the story ridiculous. I don’t know if I am capable of describing Mr Chartwell in a way which does the book justice. The story is told in alternating chapters, focusing on Esther, a library clerk trying to cope with the loss of her husband, and Churchill during the final days of his political career. Esther advertises for a lodger and the sole applicant is Black Pat, a huge, obnoxious and intrusive dog; it soon becomes apparent that his appearance is no coincidence, as Esther’s sadness threatens to overtake her. Churchill, resigned to the dog’s intermittent appearances, is far more combative; his attitude is a fascinating mix of acceptance and aggression. Hunt’s novel combines elements of liminal fantasy, magical realism and allegory in constructing Black Pat; he’s truly creepy, nowhere more so than when he is almost seductive (Esther feeling compelled to give him a bath, for example, is oddly frightening).
The really clever thing about Mr Chartwell is the way in which it gives a perspective on depression which I have never seen before; embodied by Black Pat, it is something which forces its way in, refuses to leave, follows you around and constantly tells you that you aren’t good enough. I have no firsthand experience of depression; obviously I understand it is an illness, a debilitating one, which causes terrible suffering, but Hunt’s book, bizarre as the concept is, gives depression a personality which enables the reader to achieve a little bit more understanding of this particular mental health issue.
The other book I’m going to discuss here is All My Puny Sorrows, which I read last week. A brief summary makes it sound horribly bleak – a woman tries to persuade her sister not to kill herself – but Toews’ book is so much more than this. So many pertinent issues are explored in the novel, from mental illness as a genetic inheritance to the effects on those around someone suffering from serious depression. Elfrieda has always struggled with depression, resulting in episodes which have frightened her younger sister Yolandi since childhood; All My Puny Sorrows picks up the story after Elfrieda’s latest suicide attempt, with Yolandi leaving her teenage children to be by her sister’s side. What stops this from being purely an incredibly bleak story is Yolandi’s narrative voice; Toews doesn’t hold back in presenting her narrator’s intense frustration and heartbreak, and I finished the novel feeling a sense of compassion for everyone involved in the story.
I’ve often taught the poems of Sylvia Plath to sixth formers and doing so inevitably leads to a discussion of her suicide. I’m genuinely upset every time (and it has happened more than once) one of my students asks “but what did she have to be depressed about?” The question demonstrates the extent to which the word “depressed” has become a synonym for “fed up” rather than descriptive of a mental illness. I feel like All My Puny Sorrows offers a response to this question, in its depiction of depression as something that happens, perhaps with external triggers, but principally in the same way that a more physical illness happens. Elfrieda’s suffering is palpable and incredibly affecting, while Toews’ focus on her family, partner and colleagues is also compelling. As Yolandi is forced to consider whether to help Elfrieda end her life, the reader is also given the opportunity to contemplate the questions she asks herself; I couldn’t answer any of them, and so my empathy for Yolandi grew.
I wouldn’t dare to second-guess the response to these books by someone who has experienced the issues described (although I’d be really interested to know), but as someone on the outside, I feel like reading both of these gave me a much better understanding of depression and the different ways in which it can manifest itself. Mr Chartwell is a particularly ingenious book which deserves to be read by everyone. I think All My Puny Sorrows does an equally impressive job of showing the reader the reality of life on the periphery of depression; a review in The Guardian described it as a book that “sheds light on the darkest of places,” which it does both in the sense of revealing truth and using humour in the voice of the narrator.
If you’ve read either of these books, I’d love to have a discussion in the comments. Any others which you think belong alongside these two?