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 novels about marginalised people, the first actually about travellers – or tinkers as the often refer to themselves in this novel – in Scotland; the second about migrants from Africa in Europe, beginning in Berlin. My reviews are followed by this week’s 99-word story prompted by the Carrot Ranch.
So often our actions, or inactions, have dramatic consequences, impossible to foresee. In very different ways, these two novels address this issue, the first in relation to carelessness, the second in life-transforming chance events. Each also explores the non-linearity of time. In addition, while the first includes a translator as character, the second is a translation itself – from the Finnish, my fourth for Women in Translation month.
Two debut novels from female British writers featuring dodgy scientific experiments on nonconsenting participants within very dark periods of history: the holocaust in the first and the transatlantic slave trade in the second. Yet, despite both also featuring women disempowered by their husbands, and voluntary and involuntary drug abuse, each contains a thread of hope in a love story.
Two short novels about vulnerable young women who are psychologically and physically trapped: the first by the locked door to her bedroom; the second by the psychiatric care system. Both women have unusually close bonds with their mothers, potentially cause and consequence of their struggles to relate to their peers. Both encounter difficulties distinguishing fantasy from reality, feel estranged at parties and find life getting both better and worse when they fall for young men. With unreliable narrators, whether they break free of their fetters is left to the reader to decide.
Two historical novels about the fight for political reform, in which a peaceful gathering of protesters is savagely put down. The first is about the Palestinian people’s struggle for independence in the years between the two world wars. The second is set in Britain a century earlier and focuses on the working-class battle for basic human rights. Of course, both are packed with interesting characters too!
Kicking off Women in Translation Month with 8 recommendations from previous years and a new review: The Faculty of Dreams
As my next novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, has three point-of-view characters, I’m always curious to see how others handle three-handers. But that’s not the main reason I chose to read these two novels. Both are set against the backdrop of the tangled web of history tying the Indian subcontinent with Britain. The first links the dying days of the Raj to a British-born woman of Bengali heritage settled in Wales. The second brings characters from Karachi, London and Portsmouth to the deserts of war-torn Iraq.
Two gripping novels that begin with an unexpected death in the family: in the first, set in Scotland, it’s the main character’s niece; in the second, set in Australia, it’s the protagonist’s brother. In both cases, the evidence points to suicide, until the deceased’s relatives start poking around. Both protagonists discover more than they bargained for but nevertheless benefit from confronting the truth. Both novels are also about male violence and sibling rivalry.
Have you ever wondered what draws people into a cult, or what keeps them there? Do cults always start with good intentions and end in tears? Although neither of these novels can give us all the answers, they do provide interesting insights into what it’s like to outsource your autonomy to a community with a megalomaniac at the helm. Both are informed by real cases: the first in contemporary Britain, the second in 1970s USA.
Two novels in which a marriage of a twenty-something man and woman from superficially similar backgrounds shows early signs of strain. In the first, between Muslims in contemporary London, the politics of religion are problematic right from the start; in the second, life gets tough when a new mother follows her journalist husband to a posting in newly-independent Ukraine. All harbour secrets, communication suffers and trust is hard to find. But, with youth on their side, they’ll take something from the experience, whether or not the marriages survive.
Two novels in which a third adult joins the household of a married couple and forms a strong relationship with one or both partners. Both are set in English villages, but map very different terrain. In the first, a wife befriends a young student, but the relationship turns out not to be as innocent as it first appears. In the second, set between the two world wars, a live-in maid skilfully manages to negotiate between an artist couple’s bickering, but she can’t stop the breakup of the marriage when the husband laps up another woman’s flattery.
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.
Three short reviews of quirky novels published in the UK this month that have taken me around the world without having to leave my armchair. The first, set in Australia, marries historical fact with a lonely alien visitor. The second, set in South Africa, posits an alternative near future where the sick are quarantined. The third, a German translation set in Japan, pairs a suicidal student with an expert on beards for a journey in the footsteps of a revered haiku poet.
Hot on the heels of The Old Drift, I found myself reading another two debuts about hair. In the first, although I don’t mention it in my review, you can see from the cover image that Queenie has great hair; in the second, the title’s a giveaway. Both novels also address discrimination (albeit not deeply enough for my liking): in the first as experienced by a young black woman in London; in the second it’s the trials of a lower caste woman in rural India condemned to shift shit with her bare hands and a Canadian lawyer hitting a professional brick wall when she gets sick.
Two recent debuts about women on an unplanned journey of self discovery: the first by finding a place of healing after years of trauma; the second by uncovering the truth about her parentage. Both women must travel to another part of the British Isles to find redemption; both must overcome obstacles to their understanding, to loving and being loved.
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.
Two books about teenage girls forced from their homes in what initially appear to be very different circumstances. In the first, a fourteen-year-old Lithuanian is transported to the Siberian tundra in 1940; in the second, a nineteen-year-old is compulsorily admitted to a psychiatric hospital in mid-1950s England. The first memoir, the second fiction, both books are about the struggle to survive in alien environments.
finding truth through fiction
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 two novels.
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