Census by Jesse Ball
To give the journey a focus, the doctor enrols as a census taker which – because in Jesse Ball’s fiction nothing happens quite the way it does in real life – involves travelling house-to-house, asking questions and branding participants with a small tattoo. But, either because he’s a lousy interviewer, or because it’s standard practice, the doctor seems to listen more than question and lets people tell their stories the way they choose.
This informal approach might derive from his attitude to his son. With a learning disability, the young man will never achieve independence, whatever that might mean. Alongside their efforts to protect him from casual cruelties, his parents have endeavoured not to restrict him and to instil him with confidence of his rightful place in the world.
Winner of the Gordon Burn Prize 2018, the author was inspired to write Census from the experience of growing up with a much-loved brother with Down’s syndrome. It’s a gentle short novel about difference and the choices we make in presenting ourselves to other people and formal versus informal ways of observing and finding out about the world. Thanks to Granta books for my review copy.
This is my fourth review of a novel by this author. Follow the links for A Cure for Suicide; How to Set Fire and The Divers’ Game.
The Heavens by Sandra Newman
Kate’s also worried: it’s jarring to wake up and find the world’s not quite as she left it when she went to bed. At first it’s just that the curtains of the bedroom window have been swapped for ugly plastic blinds. Later, it’s her whole history that’s altered, not only the people in her personal life, but in global politics, such as who is the president and which countries are at war. What’s more, she feels responsible for these losses, and isolated when no-one can understand.
In her sleep she time travels, back to Elizabethan England with the plague at the door. She’s Emilia, a nobleman’s mistress, but she also knows she’s Kate having a dream. As Kate, she’s there on a mission: there’s something she must do to save the world from Armageddon, but she hasn’t a clue what it is. All she knows is that each time she returns to the twenty-first century, things have become a little worse.
Sandra Newman handles her zany premise magnificently, so that our hearts go out to Kate and everyone her strange experiences disturb. The author also has fun teasing us with the identity of those she meets in the sixteenth century, and how Kate’s present shifts through small steps to resemble our own. But serious themes predominate: The Heavens is a thought-provoking novel about our tolerance or otherwise of mental health issues and our collective responsibility for the damage done to our planet and whether there’s time to make amends. Thanks to Granta books for my review copy.
Like Deborah in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Kate is given a diagnosis of schizophrenia and, when she becomes completely divorced from her friends’ reality, admitted to a psychiatric hospital. With a late-20th-century psychiatric hospital the main setting of my forthcoming novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, and a dystopian asylum in my WIP, Snowflake, I was extremely interested in Sandra Newman’s depiction of a futuristic mental hospital, where, rather like the original Bedlam, friends and family have to pay to visit (p219-220):
Inside the hospital, no-one cared. There was no-one there. No nurses, and the patients on that level were all locked in. There was occasional, directionless moaning. Half the lights were out. The smells were urine and bleach and pesticide. The floor was always wet from being washed, and the cheap gloss paint looked perpetually damp; in the semidarkness, everything glistened and swam …
The walls were covered in advertising posters for candy, fast food, cigarettes – anything a mental patient might crave and ask to have bought for them by guilt-stricken relatives. Even the hospital pajamas had a NyQuil logo with a picture of a sleeping kitten. From open doors came the chatter of the therapeutic radio that played all day and couldn’t be shut off … its cloying inspirational jabber embodied his feeling that this wasn’t a place that cured sick people but a dungeon where hapless people were imprisoned and methodically driven insane.
As it’s ten years since I’ve stepped over the threshold of any psychiatric hospital ward, I can’t be 100% sure the contemporary situation is radically different; the commercialisation and needless noise is certainly characteristic of some general hospital settings. But, since promoting the problem alongside selling the cure is endemic to applying the business model to healthcare, I imagine that, if it’s not here yet, it won’t be long. I feel a rant coming on! Let’s have a video about the mental health theme in my published books instead: