Posts Tagged ‘mental health’

Mental health is a difficult topic to write about. A dangerous topic. It would be very easy for it to trivialise – or even worse, to glamourise – mental illness or trauma. 

And there were times here where is was a little concerned that the novel may be going down that route – the love of a good man, a makeover and a haircut will cure mental illness – but it managed to avoid it, skewing off at the last moment. It is also a book full of humour and comedy which it balances with the trauma beautifully. So that, overall, this was a delightfully tender and uplifting novel. For example, when describing an incident from her limited social life, she recalls a party which 

had merely been a pretext, a ruse of sorts to provide her with the opportunity to attempt to sell us sex toys. It was a most unefifying spectacle: seventeen drunken women comparing the efficacy of a range of alarmingly large vibrators….

I’m familiar with the concept of bacchanalia and Dionysan revels, of course, but… sexual union between lovers should be a sacred, private thing. It should not be a topic for discussion with strangers over a display of edible underwear.

And, on her own sense of loneliness, Eleanor remarks that

Apart from Social Work and the utility companies, sometimes a representative from one church or another will call around to ask if I’ve welcomes Jesus into my life. They don’t tend to enjoy debating the concept of proselytizing, I’ve found, which is disappointing.

Eleanor Oliphant, our eponymous narrator, has been at the same job and followed the same routine, living in the same house, for nearly a decade. We quickly recognise touches of OCD and perhaps ASD in her behaviour, her routines, her wide vocabulary deployed without regard for context. Touches, perhaps of The Rosie Project. Before many pages, however, we realise that Eleanor is scarred both physically and emotionally and her background containing more trauma than any character deserves.

We pick her story up as two incidents affect her life: she develops a crush on a singer in a local band; secondly, a colleague, Raymond, drags her across the road to tend to a pensioner who has fallen over.  Sammy’s accident and Raymond’s quiet and patient insistence – or insistent patience? – disrupt the regime and introduce Eleanor to an increasingly widening circle of acquaintances.

As well as providing her with a range of opportunities to describe her backstory to other characters and, therefore, to us the reader.

The involvement in Sammy’s family was the least convincing part of the story for me: I’ve called ambulances for people in the past And never gone on to visit them or attend their or their family’s parties. Perhaps that says more about me and social adequacy than anything else! But it provides the narrative momentum.

Eleanor herself is immensely engaging without ever being terribly likeable, the reader empathises with her without really liking her for the main part. She is a difficult woman, a difficult character, but a deeply damaged one for whom the reader roots throughout. 

And the issue of mental health wasn’t trivialised and no quick fixes were offered: the revelations when they came generally formed part of a journey towards recovery and no simple answer was offered. Not even the truth. Perhaps especially not the truth.

This was not my usual reading fare but i did thoroughly enjoy it and – more – was moved deeply by it. 

A great read.

If you enjoyed the following, you may enjoy this:

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There are some great books that I’ve read over the years.

Neither this, nor it’s predecessor, The Rosie Project, belong in that category.

There are, however, other mental categories into which I file books and this did fall into one labelled silly-books-I’ve-read-extracts-of-to-my-wife and this does fall into that category. It is predictable; it follows an inconceivably tortuous plot. But it’s fun, sweet – bitter-sweet -and, despite misgivings about the portrayal of Don Tillman as someone on an autistic spectrum with mental health issues, you find yourself rooting for him.

The first book concluded with Don Tillman finding love with the eponymous Rosie; the second book takes place a year after their marriage and – nature having taken its natural course – Rosie announces that she is pregnant. The novel tracks the ne t nine months as Don prepares to be a father.

Maybe, having been through that process myself aided my own empathy with Don. Mind you, I don’t recall being arrested, referred to social workers or anger management groups, lesbian mothers or suspected of terrorism. Nor do I think that my reaction to her pregnancy jeopardised the marriage. I don’t think it did.

Admittedly I don’t quite have Don Tillman’s problems. Simsion tries to avoid any special if it diagnosis of the character but he certainly displays a social anxiety and social difficulties comparable to the autistic spectrum; he also generates a wide and eclectic group of friends.

Reading the novel is a little like stepping into the world of American sitcoms: The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Friends… Entertaining, silly and escapist. Various views of men, women, genetics, monogamy and sex were raised by different characters – some of which were pretty shallow to be frank – but the characters had a warmth to them which ameliorated any distaste

I did have one problem: Rosie. Despite her eponymous nature and the fact that her relationship with Don is the plot of the book, she seemed curiously absent and distant. Locked in another room with her thesis. Attending college. Away from the focus of the narrative. We barely heard her. I think more people reported her words than she had lines of dialogue. And the only real description we had of her was “perfect” and “red hair”.  Oh well… it’s a new year, so let’s be generous and assume that Simsion did so deliberately so as to reflect Rosie’s experience of Don for the reader.

The conclusion to the novel seemed a little rushed and contrived but the arc of the story was never really a mystery. It was one of those novels where you could switch your brain off, enjoy the silliness and not really mind that in the real world people just don’t act like that!