Having spent the bulk of my wage-earning life in mental health care, it’s not surprising that the theme crops up in my writing. But, as a reader, my professional experience can make me more picky. For World Mental Health Day this week, I’m asking for your favourite novels about mental health, sharing some of my own reading recommendations and illustrating how I’ve drawn on the theme in my fiction. Continue reading also for news of how to be in with the chance of winning a signed copy of my next novel, which is set in a psychiatric hospital in the process of closing down.
Two translated novels in which the return of a beloved family member, after an unexplained absence, irrevocably alters the situation for those left behind. In the first, the wanderer is a younger brother who left Paris for Syria; in the second, it’s a father who has abandoned his son at their home on an island in the Bay of Naples. Both novels are narrated from the perspective of a motherless male.
Two novels featuring mothers who leave a child/children when they’re still quite young, following the implications over several years. In the first, the narrator doesn’t know why his mother has disappeared, or even whether she’s still alive, and claims not to miss her as his older sister fills the gap where the mother belongs. The second is a dual narrative from the perspective of both mother and daughter as each suffers, in different ways, from the mother’s decision to leave Jamaica for New York. The theme gives me an excuse to sound off about attachment and share some of my own fiction, including a new 99-word story.
Two novels – the first set in Australia, the second in Syria – in which a family marks a milestone. While in the first it’s to celebrate a birthday in a city troubled by nothing more than a refuse workers strike and in the second it’s a burial in a war zone, I found both to be honest and unflinching portrayals of today’s world, and how we got here.
Two novels from continental America inspired – if that’s not too optimistic a term for the subject matter – by the authors’ own challenging childhoods with parents who weren’t up to the job. Both girls had a brother, a partially-absent father, a determined mother and grandmother with whom she didn’t see eye to eye. Both learnt early about gender discrimination; both lived in relatively comfortable households on the fringes of marginalised communities (with Native Americans as neighbours in the first novel, set in Dakota, and refugees from repressive South American regimes in the second, set in Mexico). Some say a difficult childhood is the ideal apprenticeship for a writer. Read on, and see what you think!
I’m here to introduce two novels about girls who become fixated on another girl in childhood and pick up the relationship again as young adults. In the first, set in Vietnam and the USA, the main focus is on the friendship in childhood; in the second, set in New York, the adult obsession is in the foreground. In both books, the main character has a problematic relationship with her mother: in the first, the mother is painfully distant; in the second, mother and daughter are initially enmeshed.
Novel perspectives on psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy: The Saturday Morning Murder & A Good Enough Mother
If you’ve read my previous reviews of fictional therapists, you’ll be aware that I’m often disappointed in authors who seem to have neglected their background research. Not so with these two novels: the first, set in Jerusalem in the late 1980s, providing an excellent insight into the closed and potentially claustrophobic culture of psychoanalysis; the second, set in contemporary London, clarifying the key principles of psychodynamic psychotherapy. Both are flagged as crime: the first a police procedural; the second more psychological suspense.
Enid is a Scottish aristocrat who has married ‘down’; Adèle a working-class Parisian who married into the bourgeoisie. Enid considers sex a painful duty; Adèle is sex obsessed. For Enid, work is for men and servants; Adèle has a job. Born almost a century apart, the ‘heroines’ of these debuts nevertheless have similar motivations: both have been emotionally neglected by their own mothers and feel shackled by marriage and motherhood.
I’m rounding off my reading year with reviews of American novels about women in their mid-20s who are estranged from everything, even themselves. While the first owns two properties and the second cleans other people’s houses for a living, they are equally desperately homeless inside. While the first namedrops designer labels, and the second cleaning products, both bring a light touch to the tragedy of feeling invisible and being insecurely attached.
A couple of weeks ago, challenged to compose a 99-word story combining mashed potatoes with a superpower, I chose love. Because, as these two novels testify, along with a third I reviewed at the end of last month, love is rarely straightforward, and for some an impossible dream. In Land of the Living, Georgina Harding shows how a husband’s wartime trauma, in conjunction with his wife’s inexperience, acts as a barrier to intimacy. In the City of Love’s Sleep also focuses on romance, in this case the approach-avoidance dance of a man and woman still legally or psychologically bound to another, while Nothing but Dust is a startlingly honest account of the impact of a mother’s inability to love on herself and her sons.
Women in Translation month was barely over when I picked up these two novels that should help me beat the last twelve months’ total of seven in the coming year. The first French, the second Polish, both focus on women living their lives somewhat apart from their peers. Diana because, growing up without maternal affection, she fills her emptiness with work. Olga, on the other hand, is more outwardly eccentric, and her beef is not with a mother, but with men.
No prizes for guessing why I’ve connected these two novels; I don’t think I’ve ever read another book with gravity in the title – although The Weightless World is about a antigravity machine – and then I find two published in the same month. But rest assured, they’re very different reads: in the first, Lotte feels a stronger pull towards the stars in the sky than her earthly attachments; in the second, love is a force that can furnish reconnections across continents and years.
After my last post featuring two novels about fictional teenagers going missing in the Peak District, the link between these reviews is more tenuous. While both feature men who have found a salaried position after art school – the first going into the gaming industry without completing his degree; the second joining the ranks of fictional therapists as a rare art therapist – these novels seem quite different. Yet both also feature obsession: the first with the alternate reality of computer games; the second with an estranged daughter. See what you think.
The common theme in these two recently published novels is a woman experiencing an existential crisis, taking stock of where she’s got to in life by ordering the elements that make up her external world. Sonja, the older of the two, does this through taking driving lessons, and it’s no coincidence that she struggles to take control. Miriam, past adolescence although not yet fully fledged adult, tries to achieve something similar by jettisoning her surplus possessions, and through those of a compulsive hoarder she’s employed to help. Needless to say, neither woman’s path to a more comfortable accommodation with herself is straightforward. Curious? Read on!
As far as I’m concerned, the welfare of babies and young children is a collective responsibility, so I offer no apologies for linking these three books. The first is a historical novel that begins with a fascinating account of the experience of a wet nurse in nineteenth century Spain, before moving on to the adult lives of the princess who had first turn at the breast and her milk brother, the woman’s own baby. The second is a contemporary novel set a century later, about a young American woman working as a nanny to a Japanese toddler. Both novels show the strength of attachment we can have to other people’s offspring. The third book is an uncompromising and moving memoir about a young Englishwoman who becomes pregnant as a student and decides to keep the child. Finally, because a baby is a kind of harvest of the womb, we finish with this week’s flash.
Londoner Neve is married, New Yorker Andrea is single, but they’re both struggling with similar attachment issues. Both have tried and abandoned therapy, and not only because of complex relationships with their mothers. They’re both creative types, although Andrea has given up on her art. Two women in their thirties, I’d like to put them in a room together to see if that would emphasise their individual difficulties or they’d help each other out. Failing that, I’m relying on you to judge what they can tell us, either separately or together, about contemporary women’s lives.
The digital revolution has massively changed the way we listen to music, yet vinyl has been revitalised in some quarters in recent years. Perhaps it’s no surprise that contemporary novelists should review their record collections in search of new ways of exploring the human condition. But two published within three months of each other? That’s quite a coincidence. Read on to see how these established British authors have addressed the topic in very different ways.
finding truth through fiction
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Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of three fiction books.
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