Book Review – Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Author: Maria Semple
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group (2012)
Genre: Contemporary, domestic fiction

“Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle – and people in general – has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.” – Goodreads blurb

From the outset, ‘Bernadette’ took a difficult concept (a missing mother, a worried daughter) and kept the tone an uplifting one. Bee’s determination and can-do attitude was central to that, as was her assertion on the first page that “Just because it’s complicated, just because you think you can’t ever know everything about another person, it doesn’t mean you can’t try.”

I admired the way that Semple was able to create such a strong sense of all the characters and the plot, even though the first half of the book (more – maybe the first three quarters) was told almost entirely through letters/emails. Having said that, I found it easier to read the last part, which was in Bee’s point of view.

The strongest message that I took from this book (which is one that I think every person with mental illness needs to hear) came through most strongly in the final line, the end of Bernadette’s letter to her daughter: “And know I’m always, Mom.”

To her daughter, Bernadette was first and foremost a mother, a loving and devoted mum. Her illness did not change or diminish that in the slightest. Bernadette is a much-needed example of how one can simultaneously be a good parent and have a mental illness. They’re not mutually exclusive concepts.

It also highlighted how even the most loving parent’s mental health challenges can – and do – impact their children. For example, Bee was careful with what she told her mother and chose not to tell her about the dance performance she was choreographing because she “knew [mum] didn’t like coming to school, and probably wouldn’t.”

Bernadette was open with Bee about how she felt in her letter, and she acknowledged how difficult it must have been for Bee, as “hostage to [my] careening moods.” It’s moments of honesty and communication like this which are integral to the creation and maintenance of healthy relationships, especially in situations like theirs, and Maria Semple did a great job of exploring the bond between Bernadette and her daughter.

My favourite scene was when Bee and Bernadette were singing along to the Beatles in the car. Bee observed that “it was like when mum sang, she was full of hope,” and then Bernadette started to open up to her about her experiences. The contrast between the joy of singing along to the music and the challenges Bernadette faced were so relatable, especially when she told Bee that she was trying, but “sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

I disliked how Elgin became so angry with Bernadette at the height of her difficulties, although it’s a highly understandable reaction. He clearly loved her and wanted what was best for her, and felt helpless in his inability to address her fears and increasingly erratic behaviour.

For all its sometimes heavy content matter, there were times I found myself smiling – even laughing – to myself as I read.

I only just discovered that this is being made into a movie and is due to be released next year. Needless to say, I’m very eager to see it!

This is a light read, enjoyable, but not one I’d use for peer/group work. However, it is enormously valuable. If you want to understand what it’s like to be in the mind of someone with a mental illness, or the child of someone who has one, but you don’t want to read anything too heavy, than I cannot stress enough how helpful you’d find this book. Aside from what it has to offer on the subject of mental illness, it’s highly entertaining. If you’ve not read it yet, be sure to read it before the movie comes out!

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Book Review – Panther

Content warning: mentions of suicide, eating disorder

Author: David Owen
Publisher: Corsair (2015)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (YA)

“Life isn’t going terribly well for Derrick. He has become severely overweight, his only friend has turned on him, he is hopelessly in love with a girl way out of his league, and it’s all because of his sister. Her depression – its grip on his family – is tearing his lie apart.” (From the blurb.)

This was a short novel, even for YA, and I read it in a day. Although the subject matter was heavy, the prose was easy to read.

I was impressed from the very first page, when we were introduced to a male character who struggled with disordered eating. So often in fiction, girls are the ones depicted with eating disorders, or grappling with body image. Books like this one are crucial to changing that overarching narrative and increasing general awareness of these issues as they occur in the male population. Derrick’s compulsive eating (and subsequent weight gain) was the biggest indicator that he wasn’t coping, and it went unnoticed by everyone around him, because “[t]he only important thing in the house was Charlotte. It didn’t matter what else was going on.”

Like many young people in his situation, Derrick found himself undertaking a new set of responsibilities following the onset of his sister’s depression and her suicide attempt (which took place three months prior to the beginning of the book). He would clean up the messes Charlotte left behind without complaint, falsely believing “it was his responsibility to stop this.” But Derrick was not responsible for his sister’s behaviour. In addition, He had more than enough on his plate – bullied relentlessly, and recently abandoned by Tamoor, his one-time best friend.

Considering his situation, I really wanted to like Derrick, but as much as I sympathised with him, I couldn’t go so far as to say I liked him as a character. One reason was his unrequited feelings for Hadley (which I’ll discuss in more detail below), and another was his fury at Charlotte and at his dad, for having illnesses they couldn’t control. His inability to understand – or at least try to accept – their experience was ironic since Owen repeatedly emphasised that Derrick’s binge eating was an attempt to gain some sort of control over his own situation. Finally, while his misbehaviour at school, to which Owen alluded at the start (such as locking a teacher in a cupboard), was probably driven by the uncertainty of his home life, it didn’t help me see him in a more positive light.

Leading on from that, there were a few elements of the plot that I didn’t enjoy. The first was Derrick’s obsession with Hadley. Sure, he’s at the age where he might fantasise about girls, but I was put off because he knowingly invaded her space. He went into her bedroom when no one else was home and scrolled through her Facebook messages. That would have been intrusive enough, but what pushed his behaviour over the edge to full on creepy was the scene where he found her underwear and Hadley walked in as he was pressing it to his face.

Before I go any further, there will be major spoilers ahead.

I was pleasantly surprised that Owen touched on parental mental illness, as well as Charlotte’s difficulties and the way that having a sibling with mental illness can make darkness seem inescapable. However, I think their dad’s depression could have been explored a bit more, especially since Derrick was only told about it after Charlotte’s suicide attempt.

Derrick’s immediate reaction to Charlotte dying seemed off and understated, to me. They’d had several bonding moments in the lead up to her death. The scene where she defended him to Hadley, losing her best friend in the process of sticking up for her younger brother, emphasised more than anything else how much she cared about him. On the other hand, he felt relieved after her death, because “it didn’t feel like they were caught in a trap any more. It felt like they were back in the real world…” Reading that made me feel uneasy, because it’s a contradiction of the societal expectations of death, that regret and sadness could exist alongside relief.

I also wasn’t convinced by Hadley forgiving him so easily – or Tamoor, for that matter. And for someone who was supposedly Charlotte’s best friend, Hadley seemed surprisingly composed in the aftermath of Charlotte’s suicide.

Finally, I’d have liked a definitive answer as to whether or not the panther was real or a figment of his imagination. Which is to say, although it was made clear to readers that the panther was a metaphor, I think it would have been quite powerful to show Derrick coming to that realisation himself.

This book was intended for a young adult audience, but I would be mindful of its sexual references before recommending it to a young person. Along the same lines, its descriptions of Charlotte’s suicide attempt may make some readers uncomfortable, particularly if the events in the novel hit close to home. Having said that, Panther created an effective metaphor for depression, and I commend David Owen for writing it, and for highlighting that males can have a complex relationship with food, too.

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Book Review – Shell

Author: Kristina Olsson
Publisher: Scribner/ an imprint of Simon and Schuster (2018)
Genre: Literary fiction

“In 1965 as Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s striking vision for the Sydney Opera House transforms the skyline and unleashes a storm of controversy, the shadow of the Vietnam War and a deadly lottery threaten to tear the country apart.

Journalist Pearl Keogh, exiled to the women’s pages after being photographed at an anti-war protest, is desperate to find her two missing brothers and save them from the draft. Axel Lindquist, a visionary young glass artist from Sweden, is obsessed with creating a unique work that will do justice to Utzon’s towering masterpiece. ” (From Simon & Schuster)

As much as I adored this book, I wasn’t intending to review it because I didn’t think it included any aspects of parental mental illness. Imagine my delight, then, when towards the end, hints of it emerged.

I suppose I should preface this review by saying that I adore the prose to such an extent that I’m really not qualified or removed enough to be reviewing this novel. It reminded me very much of reading Sixty Lights by Gail Jones in high school and being introduced to (and astounded by) the beauty that one can create with words – and being inspired to attempt to write (very poorly) my own pieces of linguistic beauty.

Let me assert that the prose exists alongside a well-paced plot, which gave a framework and context to the language.

I liked Pearl as a character, and her experiences were an excellent lens through which Olsson explored feminism in a hugely powerful way. My blood boiled at how Pearl was delegated to writing the ‘Women’s Section’ of the paper, and for other reasons which I won’t go into for the sake of spoilers.

I also loved how Axel’s character recognised the importance of honouring Australia’s Indigenous culture. It was striking that he, an outsider, was able to see the value of our national history, while those who lived here struggled – and we still, unfortunately, struggle – to do the same.

Before I end, of course, I want to discuss the elements of mental illness, although this section will contain spoilers.

Axel’s father was involved in the White Buses, a Swedish movement which rescued Jews from Nazi Germany. When Pearl finds out from one of her interview subjects that many of those involved took their own lives, unable to bear the horrors they’d seen, it’s revealed that one of those was Axel’s father.

Axel’s loss – and witnessing the men pull his father’s body from the lake where he drowned  – reverberates through the rest of his life. His family – as many do – adopted a policy of not talking about what had happened, particularly in the glasswork shed: “Here no one spoke of his father. As if the mention of him might disturb the thin membrane they survived beneath, all of them.”

Axel was confused at the change in his father, when he’d come back from his work – the White Buses – and his mother had explained it in language a child might understand. Axel and his father used to go on walks together, but after Axel’s 10th birthday, when everything changed, his father went out alone. This is where picture books and their metaphors can be helpful – a less confronting way of helping children understand the experience of their parent. In the absence of such resources, Olsson sensitively showed readers a mother doing her best, a father slipping away: “He has been far away. And seen hard things. I think he is trying to save us from that. From what he can’t forget.”

The style of writing won’t appeal to all readers – I know several people who didn’t share my love of ‘Sixty Lights’ – but if you, like me, have a fascination with how words can allow us to access the miraculous in every aspect of our lives, then you’ll love ‘Shell.’

shell book cover

Book Review – For the Forest of a Bird

forest of a bird

Author: Sue Saliba
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia (2015)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (YA)

“Nella waits for the swallows by the creek each spring. It’s a secret vigil she’s followed ever since her father left. This year she’s going to take him with her…but can we ever return to the way things were?”

I’d just read Alaska by Sue Saliba when I picked up For the Forest of a Bird from the library, and I was keen to see how they compared. There were some obvious similarities: both books featured troubled mothers, and had teenage girls as their protagonists, for example, but they were still distinct stories.

Nella’s dad left their family when her mother’s bipolar became too difficult for him to handle, but Nella doesn’t blame him. There were instances, in fact, where she blamed her mother, which didn’t sit right with me. For example, Nella thought that “If she’d really cared for her husband, if she’d really cared for Nella’s father, she would have found a way to get better.”

Saliba did show Nella coming to a new perspective on her mother: “One thing turns to another…anger to understanding. Her mother loved her father…She had wanted him to stay but she could not keep him.” I’d have liked this to be explored a bit more.

That aside, although Nella’s father was her central preoccupation, Saliba’s description of her mother’s manic and depressive behaviour was spot on. For example:

We were introduced to Nella’s mum when Nella got back from the creek and described the silence in the house. “She walked past…the dark bedroom where her mother lay beneath the eiderdown…How still everything was…This stillness was heavy, immobile, as if even the air when it entered the house stopped circulating and became a solid thing.”

When Nella came home to find her mother out of bed and adamantly declaring that there was no need to take her medication, she knew what had happened: “Something had pierced her mother’s darkness. Something had flung her to that other end of herself.”

In addition to its sensitive portrayal of parental mental illness, I loved the fact that this was a YA book with no romance present, when so, so many of the YA books on the market have romance as a central element. Adolescence is not always – and doesn’t have to be – defined by romance, and ‘For the Forest of a Bird’ is an excellent example of that.

I also loved how Australian the book was – the title was taken from a poem called ‘Birds’ by Judith Wright, Nella lives in North Fitzroy, and her father lives in Phillip Island.

There was a note of reverence in the tone of the book, in the way Nella observed everything around her so closely, and especially in Nella’s thoughts about nature. As a vegetarian myself, I loved that Nella didn’t eat meat – there are very few novels I’ve found featuring vegan or vegetarian characters.

I found it interesting that Nella bringing her dad to see the swallows was the big idea of returning things to how they were, when she’d never actually watched the swallows with him before.

I felt that things were happening too fast for my liking – I’d have liked more time (or words) in which to get to know the characters. Saliba is obviously very skilled, then, at keeping the plot moving, and the novel takes place over a short span of time which is crucial to Nella’s understanding of the world, and of herself. I like the way it was done, but my reading preferences are to have more time/space to sit with characters and events. Admittedly, I did read this book in the space of a day because I loved it so much, which could have also contributed to that feeling.

On the whole, I think this was a brilliant book, which will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to accept change, or wanted something they couldn’t have.

 

 

Book review – Alaska

Author: Sue Saliba
Publisher: Penguin (2011)
Genre: YA

Alaska is the story of a girl from Melbourne who has gone to stay with her older sister while their mother is in hospital being treated for alcohol dependence.

The biggest criticism I have of this book is that I wanted it to be longer. I borrowed it from the library on Monday evening and had finished it by Tuesday afternoon. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. I loved every element of the book, from the design of the front cover and the formatting of the text to the plot and characters.

The absence of quotation marks and capital letters gave me the impression that Mia as a narrator was younger than 18, but it also somehow made the story more compelling.

I loved that (and here’s a spoiler), Mia decided to go back to Melbourne with her mum. Her distance from Em and Ethan’s decision to work with the company destroying the forest were obviously big parts of that decision but I’d like to have seen more of the tenderness between Mia and her mum, to demonstrate more strongly that Mia’s loyalty to her mum was another contributing factor.

The writing throughout this novel was lyrical and gorgeous, and Saliba used her masterful grasp of language to explore the deep and complex topic of alcoholism and a child forced to grow up too young in a highly descriptive, emotional way.

Here are a few of my favourite lines:

“and there was another thing, missing in Mia’s thoughts at the surface, but present in the darkness below. As strong a force as any – her mother.”

I loved that this quote highlights how all-consuming it can be to have a parent with a mental illness – how even though Mia is physically so far away from her mother, they’re still bound in ways she can’t quite understand.

Saliba reinforced that notion when Mia reflected on the negative voice in her mind which often followed thoughts of her hopes and dreams: “she would deny it if she were asked – she would deny it even to herself – but it was the voice of her mother.”

“she felt the stones beneath the soles of her shoes and she heard her own breathing, and she thought of her mother, ill and sad and lonely, and even that thought she did not push away, or the fear and sadness that arose with it.”

Although neither Em nor Mia was ever directly referred to as a young carer, Em had to take on caring responsibilities, which Saliba demonstrated at several points. For example, Mia remembered Em (at 13 years old) telling a policewoman that “she could care for herself and her little sister while their mum went into hospital again.”

I was fascinated by how Mia’s reverence and compassion for nature and for Em and Ethan was contrasted with her slightly less compassionate view of her mother’s condition as “something of her own choosing.” This is a very contentious issue, and I won’t dive into it too much here except to say that some would argue vehemently against the idea of alcoholism/addiction being a choice.

This is an impressive exploration of parental alcoholism, and Sue Saliba’s lived experience of growing up with a mother facing mental health difficulties has clearly informed her writing.

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Book Review – Lola Night

Publisher: CreateBooks (2016)
Genre: YA
Author: Mariana Colette

I read this book because it’s on a list of books that feature families where a parent has a mental illness. I appreciate what it was trying to do, but I didn’t exactly enjoy it.

The way the story moved backwards and forwards in time was sometimes unclear. I was shocked by the casual mention of purging behaviour, when Izzy said she threw up her food. I’d like to have seen Lola’s immediate reaction to the news, which would have shown young readers that such behaviour is dangerous and not something to which they should aspire. This was done a bit better when Lola found Amy throwing up in the toilet, and Colette established Alison’s damaging attitude and language around her daughters’ eating as a contributing factor. Colette reinforced this through Alison’s reaction to Amy’s weight loss. She told Amy that she was “looking great,” despite signs of ill health which Lola had noticed.

The varying lengths of the chapters kept the story moving, and the inclusion of certain scenes underscored the difficulty of Lola’s situation. I felt most sympathy for her when she got her period and wished that her mother could have been with her.

Having said that, I didn’t get much of a sense of Lola’s mother in the first half of the novel – a bit more information about what she was like before her breakdown and Lola’s relationship with her would likely have helped in that regard. Having Lola visit her with Alison and Amy would have helped with that too.

The introduction of Adam as a character was a good way to demonstrate Lola’s desire for connection, but they only chatted briefly – seems a bit too fast for Lola to develop such an obsession. It was nice that he was reintroduced as Lola’s boyfriend near the end but it was also a bit sudden.

I don’t think her mum’s – apparent – complete recovery was realistic and I’d like to have seen more about how they adjusted and the impact that Lola’s grandmother’s suicide impacted them.

While I get that the setting of a counselling session is an appropriate place for Lola to reflect on her progress, it wasn’t necessarily the best way to finish the novel. We only met Sarah once before and Lola doesn’t have a strong relationship with her. Lola’s bonds with her mum and Adam are much more important so ending with Lola talking to either or both of them would have been more powerful.

Despite my disappointment with this book, there were a few lines I did enjoy. Lola describes her grandmother’s alcoholism in an age-appropriate way: “if she has one glass of wine she doesn’t know how to stop and she drinks and drinks until she passes out.” There’s also an insightful remark about how she has to keep her emotions to herself: “mum had enough to worry about without having to stress about me and how I was feeling.” Maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for this book, but I hope (and am quite sure) there are readers for whom it was both helpful and enjoyable.

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Book review – The Astonishing Colour of After

This book is by far one of my favourite reads of 2018, and one of my favourite reads featuring a COPMI (child of a parent with a mental illness) story.

The use of colours to represent emotions was a unique feature of the story, and having Axel and Leigh use the colours as a sort of code added real depth to their friendship.

I found myself taking note of certain pages and lines that I wanted to look back over, because they resonated with me and explained Leigh’s situation extremely well. Below are a few of those lines, and my thoughts on them:

Pan captured the helplessness and desperation of seeing someone you love hurting so deeply, of wishing you could help them but knowing you can’t. “I would’ve carved out my heart and brain and given them to her just so she could feel right again.”

Living in a household where mental illness is present can often feel like constantly walking on eggshells, something that Emily X.R. Pan also highlighted. This was most notable when Leigh would escape to Axel’s house in order to work on her art folio, because “The slightest noise…would set off [mum’s] temper.”

Two lines in particular struck a chord with me because of how they touched on the sense of responsibility that a child in Leigh’s situation can feel.

“I excused it too quickly, too easily…Was it my fault? If I had only – ” Here, Leigh pondered who was to blame for her mother’s suicide, a question, she realised, it was impossible to answer.

“I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had to give her as much of myself as I had, that I was the pillar holding her upright.”

Having spoken to many young people in situations that are much like Leigh’s, I tend to hear comments about how the behaviour of a mentally ill parent can go unquestioned for a long time, since it’s just the way things are – mental illness and its associated behaviours become their own kind of “normal.” For these young people, there’s often one day or one incident that shows them irrefutably that something’s not quite right. In Pan’s novel, it was Leigh’s fourteenth birthday: “one of the first times I realised there might be something truly wrong with my mother…”

COPMI often have to grow up quicker than their peers from families untouched by mental illness, and Pan demonstrated this in Leigh’s situation when she recognised she’d become an “expert at taking care of myself,” because her mum couldn’t.

A particularly strong detail was how Leigh found herself envying the cat, because Dory could motivate herself to get out of bed to feed her pet, but she couldn’t do the same for her daughter. This was one reason why her house started to feel less like a sanctuary and more like a place to be avoided:
“each day I dreaded going home, where I knew I would find all the shades drawn, everything dark…”

On a different note, the reveal of the reason for the estrangement between Leigh’s mum and grandparents felt a bit flat to me. Perhaps because Leigh doesn’t know Waipo and Waigong well enough as characters (and therefore, neither do we, as readers). Their insistence that Dory must marry someone Chinese felt as backward for me as a reader as I imagine it would have done for Leigh.

I also wasn’t expecting the end revelation about Feng, although that might just have been me not reading closely enough. (I won’t say anything more specific, don’t want to give too many spoilers!)

Those things aside, I was blown away by this book. I could go on and on about how much I loved it but that would take up time which I could otherwise spend re-reading it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this review – and happy World Mental Health Day!

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