Maybe it was the fact that a few of our friends spent this autumn struggling with mental health issues, or maybe because one of us works in healthcare and October was National Mental Health Awareness Month in the USA, but very unintentionally it appears many of the books we have read recently contain a mental illness theme. And please, before you stop reading because you think our picks will be depressing and “who needs that in November (or what some Vermonters call ‘stick season’)?”, please know that these books are amazing and thought provoking. Plus, we could argue many great characters in great literature exhibited mental illnesses, we just don’t think of the books they were in as about illness (think Hamlet, Mrs. Dalloway, Holden Caulfield).
Perhaps mental illnesses are specifically labeled in these more recent books because the societal taboo around discussing mental illnesses is thawing a bit, and authors find themselves able to address mental illness in ways they could not have tried previously. Or, perhaps not, but whatever these authors’ rationales, we are glad for at least a few reasons. One, we truly hope it means that the world in general is more aware of and ideally accepting of people with mental illnesses. And two, it means some great new books are out there for all of us to read. While we have read many books that could work in today’s post, we limited ourselves to two recently published fiction choices and two slightly older memoirs.
We hope you will read them, even if mental illness makes you sad or uncomfortable, because they are all really good books.
Two TRULY AMAZING works of fiction
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (2013) – Wow, I cried at the end of this one. I completely understand why this novel was the COSTA book of the year for 2013 (awarded to fiction written by writers in Ireland and the UK). Told in a completely engaging manner in the first person by the main character Matthew (although you don’t know his name for awhile), this FIRST novel by Mr. Filer explores mental illness, what triggers it, how people help and hurt the patient’s prognosis, what mental health hospitals try to accomplish, how funding for services for mental health is precarious, and how the mentally ill function so well for so long, until they don’t. Mr. Filer is a mental health nurse (and I would add outstanding novelist) and his compassion for his patients comes through throughout this novel. The narration is brilliant; and, the situation is heart-breaking, unbelievably moving, bittersweet, and above all compelling. As London’s Daily Mail says, “you’re going to love it.” (This novel is currently available in Europe, and will be available in the USA in January 2015. You can pre-order it in the States; and for now, we link this pick to the Waterstones web site.) ~ Lisa Christie
Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto (2012) – In a little over 200 pages, this author charmed me with a narrative of a son trying to figure out his unusual family. A family orbiting the ups and downs of his mother and the manifestations of her bipolar disease. Uniquely and beautifully infused with compassion, grace, lots of humor, insight and love, this gem of a book is a must read for anyone looking for a good story or anyone whose lives are touched by mental illness. (Note: This would make a great Book Club book — well-written, short, and on many levels profound.) ~ Lisa Christie
Two insightful memoirs
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness: by William Styron (1992) – The author of Sophie’s Choice struggled with depression for years. Years ago, a friend of mine, whose father also struggles mightily with depression, told me that his father stated this brief memoir by Styron came the closest he had ever read to describing what living with a mental illness feels like. He also said his dad recommends it to anyone living with someone suffering from depression. While admittedly sounding completely bleak, this book has been described as conveying “the full terror of depression’s psychic landscape, as well as the illuminating path to recovery”, and my memory of reading it years ago would second this assessment. ~ Lisa Christie
Blue Nights by Joan Didion (2012) – Written to help make sense of the death of her daughter, this book is full of moving and poetic prose, profound thoughts and insight into life with long undiagnosed mental illness, as well as the author’s own process of aging. While Ms. Didion is frustratingly very vague about the exact nature of her daughter’s illness and even the cause of her death, she refers throughout this lyrical memoir to the “signs” all along the way that something was troubling her daughter, and that in retrospect maybe help could have arrived in time. I am so glad I picked this up thinking I could use a good memoir, never knowing it would be a perfect companion pick for today’s post. ~ Lisa Christie (Lisa Cadow also supports any Didion selection)
This post is dedicated to Dr. Jerry M. Wiener, a psychiatrist who spent a significant portion of his career trying to lift the stigmas surrounding mental illnesses, and to his tremendous partner Louise Wiener whose professional life has been dedicated to educating children and their families.