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Novel joins non-fiction on Mind book shortlist

 

 

Michelle Pauli

Tuesday April 24, 2007

Guardian Unlimited

 

A debut novel about a woman's determination to leave a mental institution heads the Mind book of the year award shortlist.

 

Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan, which has also been shortlisted for the Orange new writers award this week, takes a comic look at the mental health system. The eponymous heroine of the book plots her escape from the Dorothy Fisher day hospital in north London but discovers that, in the topsy-turvy world of mental health, she has to prove that she is insane before she can be considered for release.

 

 

While Allan herself spent over 10 years of her life as a patient within the psychiatric system, including time in a day hospital in north London, and draws on those experiences in the book, she is emphatic that it is not a memoir.

 

As she explains in an interview on the Bloomsbury website,

 

"At the heart of the novel, lies the problem of expression, and most particularly the gap between experience and the expression of it. The day hospital was full of extreme experience... Mental illness is a survival strategy. It is a means of reconciling the irreconcilable. At the day hospital I was constantly struck not by the frailty of those around me but by their resilience. Their experiences were unimaginable, impossible to survive... and yet here we were sharing a cigarette. In writing Poppy Shakespeare I didn't want to focus on the experiences themselves; I didn't want to write that sort of book. What I wanted to explore was how words cope with extremes of emotion and experience."

 

Poppy Shakespeare is the only novel on the shortlist for the award, which seeks to celebrate writing that contributes to public understanding of mental health issues.

 

The judges for the award include the novelists Fay Weldon, Blake Morrison and Michele Roberts and the winner will be presented with the £1,500 prize on May 16 by Stephen Fry.

 

I have this book on my TBR pile, and am quite intrigued by it. I remember someone on their Book List for this year giving it only 2 stars. Has anyone read it yet, or has a comment about it?

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I tried to read this a week or two ago and gave up at around page 100. The book is written in the dialect of the narrator, N, which I found really annoying. On top of this, by page 100, nothing much had happened. The main character had appeared, more or less, but there was no plot and only a sprinkling of one-dimensional characters. One thing that really (irrationally?!) annoyed me was that the day centre seemed to have 26 attendees, each name starting with a unique letter of the alphabet, so when a character whose name begins with 'P' leaves, Poppy comes in. This leads to the book being populated with far too many annoying names.

 

I was hoping that this book would be as good as the film 'Girl, Interrupted' (I've never read the book), but unless I gave up just before it got going, it wasn't.

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I was hoping that this book would be as good as the film 'Girl, Interrupted' (I've never read the book), but unless I gave up just before it got going, it wasn't.

 

I've read and seen Girl, Interrupted, and the book was quite good as far as I remember. While I wasn't expecting PS to be like The Bell Jar, I had hoped that it was at least as good as Girl, Interrupted. Oh dear - well I'll give it a shot anyway and probably GM it. I take it then, that you are surprised by the nomination?

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I take it then, that you are surprised by the nomination?
Well, sort of, but I think I heard of it because it is nominated for the Orange prize so someone must like it more than me! I think my main problem was the narrative style, so if you can tolerate it, then it might turn out to be OK. These things are very personal, I really liked the use of dialect in Trainspotting, but not here. I didn't realise it was aimed at young adults either, but maybe they would cope better with the style than I did.
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  • 4 months later...

I read this and to start with I thought it was good, I assumed the name thing, was just to be ignored, N is an unreliable narrator from the start. I thought the outcome was obvious and I was hoping for a surprise ending instead. OK but certainly not a prize winner, or a book I'd like teens to read!

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  • 6 months later...

I don't think this should be in the teen fiction section - it is an adult book.

 

It is also, as others have said, quite boring and the dialect grates. There is little understanding of mental health services or the problems that people with mental illness really suffer. The cast of hundrens means that no character is ever really developed, and the use of a mentally ill narrator just throws up barriers between the writer and the reader. I have long argued that mental illness leads to disconnection with regular society, making the subject matter inherently dull - despite many valiant attempts to prove otherwise.

 

The cover is nice, though.

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IThere is little understanding of mental health services or the problems that people with mental illness really suffer.
My sister is a psychiatrist and she constantly bemoans the problems of exactly that that you mention. Usually followed by a lecture about how no one ever fundraises for mental health causes, and that cancer is the 'trendy' thing to fundraise for. But, god love her, she tries her best to address the imbalance.
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  • 2 weeks later...
I don't think this should be in the teen fiction section - it is an adult book.

 

It is also, as others have said, quite boring and the dialect grates. There is little understanding of mental health services or the problems that people with mental illness really suffer. The cast of hundrens means that no character is ever really developed, and the use of a mentally ill narrator just throws up barriers between the writer and the reader. I have long argued that mental illness leads to disconnection with regular society, making the subject matter inherently dull - despite many valiant attempts to prove otherwise.

 

The cover is nice, though.

 

Well One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Girl Interupted certainly weren't dull!

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There is little understanding of mental health services or the problems that people with mental illness really suffer.
I've just googled the book, and found an interview with Clare Allan on the Bloomsbury website. There Allan talks about how she spent "a third of [her] life as a patient" at a psychiatric hospital. So she must have some understanding as an individual. What a shame if this doesn't come through in her writing.

 

ETA - I've moved it as you suggested, MrHG, as everything I've just read seems to show it isn't specifically a teen novel either, although like The Bell Jar I can see how it would have older teen appeal.

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Well One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Girl Interupted certainly weren't dull!

But both of these were dealing with sane people who found themselves in psychiatric hospitals - allowing for character development. By choosing a mentally ill patient as the narrator, Clare Allan really shut down any opportunity to develop her characters or explore her themes. I'm not sure that being a patient in a psychiatric hospital is very helpful for producing great insights into the mental health system. It's really the doctors and administrators who run the place - as Clare Allan notes. There is nothing in the novel that strikes me as ringing true about mental health. The Mad Money; superstitious belief in stocking up the various floors; desire to keep people in longer than they need to be...

 

As an aside, there is a novel by a schizoprenic writer (The One by Paul Reed) which apparently gives a great insight into what it is like to live with the schizophrenia. Trouble is, the discontinuities and lack of any real human interaction or relationship (the demons get in the way) might be accurate, but it isn't very interesting over a sustained period.

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like The Bell Jar I can see how it would have older teen appeal.
There's almost a subgenre about female insanity and incarceration, starting with Jane Eyre's Bertha (and the way her insanity is answered in Wide Sargasso Sea) and even Lady Macbeth, at least in her compusive hand-washing, sleepwalking moments... perhaps? And most recently, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

 

I also thought of The Bell Jar when reading Poppy Shakespeare, which is unfortunate as few writers benefit from a comparison to Sylvia Plath. But the shared elements of the incarceration of girls who can't otherwise be controlled (like the Winona Ryder/Angelina Jolie film Girl Interrupted) - and of autobiography, whereby these women reclaim their own life stories, is hard to avoid. The Bell Jar is a much better book.

 

ETA: Sorry, I accidentally deleted my own post, and didn't cut and past this next bit in:

 

I wonder why The Bell Jar seems so much more successful? I see it's been mentioned a couple of times in this thread. Perhaps, MrHG, it's because it's an example of an occasion where mental illness actually is portrayed effectively. The main character's depression is very evocatively created - unlike, say the tedious narrator of The Gathering - though perhaps an element of the pathos comes from recognising the young Sylvia Palth in the character and knowing that she did commit suicide soon after it was published.

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There's almost a subgenre about female insanity and incarceration, starting with Jane Eyre's Bertha (and the way her insanity is answered in Wide Sargasso Sea) and even Lady Macbeth, at least in her compusive hand-washing, sleepwalking moments... perhaps? And most recently, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.
My favourite addition to that sub-genre would be The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

 

I wonder why The Bell Jar seems so much more successful?

I think a number of reasons; the prominence of the author, it's well-written, and it has been accepted into the (feminist) American canon and therefore taught in schools.

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There's almost a subgenre about female insanity and incarceration, starting with Jane Eyre's Bertha (and the way her insanity is answered in Wide Sargasso Sea) and even Lady Macbeth, at least in her compusive hand-washing, sleepwalking moments... perhaps? And most recently, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.

.

 

Not to mention that near masterpiece, Hannah Greene's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

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  • 1 year later...

I'm about three quarters of the way through Poppy Shakespeare and as mentioned by others on this thread, nothing seems to have happened. The build up for the arrival of Poppy simply resulted in an anti-climax as no changes occurred.

Having read the first couple of chapters- I thought that I could really get into the book but I am now at the stage where I really am having to force myself to finish it.

Other than the lact of material that it seems to cover, the main difficulty I find with the book is the lack of character development- even in the main character 'N'.

It will surely by going to the charity shop as I will not be rereading this!

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