Canada’s Annual Battle of the Books has as its theme this year “One Book to Move You.” This is the first of the five shortlisted books I’ve read so far. Since I have tickets to be in the studio audience once again this year, I want to read as many as I can before the CBC debate starts in March!
Like Educated, this is the story of an incredibly horrible and abusive upbringing. When Lindsay Wong, often troubled by dizziness and nausea, finally breaks away from her family and is living in NYC, she discovers that she actually has a neurological condition that has been causing her crippling symptoms–so, not the woo-woo after all. Lindsay Wong shares her dysfunctional family’s mental health struggles, where illness and weakness of any kind was nothing more than ghosts and demon possession.
It’s meant to be darkly comedic, but her writing style and humour just didn’t work for me. Even though she holds a BFA in creative writing from UBC in Vancouver (which she calls University of a Billion Chinese in Hongcouver) and an MFA from Columbia University, she says this in her acknowledgements, “Writing makes me want to gouge out my eyeballs.” Why would a writer say that when the book was meant to be cathartic? No doubt it was difficult for her to be honest about her upbringing and though I commend her for raising awareness within her culture about mental illness, I hesitate to recommend that this should win Canada Reads 2019 and be a book that all Canadians should read. Though the story is eye opening and harrowing, I found the book to be repetitive, disconnected, and just not that well written. It’s not even clear to me how she survived and how her obvious strength and resilience helped her overcome, which means all that remains is nothing more than a horrible story trying to be funny.
“When we share our struggles we let others know it’s okay to share theirs. And suddenly we realize that the things we were ashamed of are the same things everyone deals with at one time or another. We are so much less alone than we think.”
Jenny Lawson, author of a famous blog called, The Bloggess, writes with flagrant humour about mental illness. She herself suffers from a few things: rheumatoid arthritis, depression, anxiety, phobias, insomnia, panic attacks, self-injury, avoidant personality disorder, autoimmune disease, and mild OCD. Yikes! Her work is undoubtedly fearless and honest, whether you find it laugh-out-loud funny or annoyingly irreverent. When she portrays herself as weird and unbalanced, she gives anyone else permission to be weird and unbalanced too (and certainly not as bad as she is), thereby busting the stigma of mental illness.
As you skip through the lightheartedness of this memoir, you do come up against the terror and tragedy that mental illness can bring, and her voice is clear and helpful. Lawson says, “I’ve been there. I’m broken too. I hear you. You are enough. Live your life as best you can, while striving to be furiously happy. Do what you can but don’t settle for less.” When she goes on speaking tours, Lawson’s audiences burst the venues–clearly she is hitting a nerve.
Lawson’s reference to Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory* towards the end of the book, was particularly helpful–we all have a limited number of spoons that we start each day with. Some of us have more than others. Just being aware can make a big difference.
*The spoon theory is a disability metaphor and neologism used to explain the reduced amount of energy available for activities of daily living and productive tasks that may result from disability or chronic illness. … A person who runs out of spoons has no choice but to rest until their spoons are replenished.
Much like Mark Haddon’s autistic narrator Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Matthew in ‘The Shock of the Fall’ offers insight into the mind of a young person who is schizophrenic. Using images, letters, and different fonts, the narrator takes us on a journey through Mathew’s inner voices and different personalities. His brother Simon has Down’s Syndrome and dies early on in the story (this is not a spoiler, it’s right on the back of the book!) so the author explores how the family copes not only with mental illness, but also with grief.
Both funny and painful, the narration often goes like this:
‘I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name is Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.”
Writing a novel like this is ambitious and rightly won the Costa Book Award for 2013. Filer does a good job of sketching the life of someone suffering with mental illness, who depends on medications (with horrible side effects), has little opportunity for independence, and is constantly misunderstood. The author is himself a mental health nurse, so has obviously used his experiences and his observations to inform his writing. It is a heartrending account of a difficult life but written quite unsentimentally, as was Haddon’s. Both novels allow us unique insight into the mind of the protagonist, although I think Curious Incident was more readable because I felt Haddon was more skilled at building suspense.
Note: Published in the US as “Where the Moon Isn’t”