Books featuring a mother with a mental illness

Book Review – Audacious

Sixteen-year-old Raphaelle says the wrong thing, antagonizes the wrong people and has the wrong attitude. She can’t do anything right except draw, but she draws the wrong pictures. When her father moves the family to a small prairie city, Raphaelle wants to make a new start. Reborn as “Ella,” she tries to fit in at her new school. She’s drawn to Samir, a Muslim boy in her art class, and expresses her confused feelings in explicit art. When a classmate texts a photo of Ella’s art to a younger friend, the fallout spreads throughout Ella’s life, threatening to destroy her already-fragile family.”

Warning: mentions of eating disorders.
Full spoilers ahead.

Author: Gabrielle Prendergast
Publisher: Orca (2013)
Genre: Contemporary (for a YA readership)

I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy this one, because I hadn’t read a novel in verse before. However, I devoured it in the space of a couple of hours, and now intend to go back and read it again, because I’m concerned that in my haste I’ve missed the opportunity to really savour each poem as a self-contained piece of writing.

The poems were so varied, in their structure and content, which I loved. And the format of poems meant that every word carried an enormous weight, and I admired Prendergast’s ability to bring to life such rich and complex issues as grief, bulimia, asthma and bullying in just a few words. For example, the word Toothbrush was used as an acrostic to explain how she found out that her mother’s bulimia had returned.

Here are some of my favourite lines:

“I long to draw the eyes of others
To themselves
And their failings
Away from me
And mine.”

“A moment passes so full I think I hear the walls creak expanding to fit the weight of heartbreak and hope.”

“Love is a blessing and a gift, not for us to question.”

“There is no greater accomplishment than making someone love you.”

As well as being the first to suspect her mum’s relapse, Raphaelle also supported her sister with her asthma, and I was touched by the scene where they curled up with a blanket over their heads and shared secrets, including Kayli’s observation that their mum was getting thinner again. I had a real sense of Raphaelle’s helplessness when she noted that her dad must see the red knuckles, hear the retching and smell the breath, and wondered: “Why hasn’t somebody said or done something?”

It was up to Raphaelle to pull her dad up on how absent he was being. She, then, like many other young people facing a similar situation, had to take on the role and responsibility of an adult when she needed one.

I loved the scene where her mother came into her room and admitted that she’d been so caught up in her own issues that she’d overlooked her children. The fact that it was her encouragement that allowed Raphaelle to tell the truth about who defaced the painting in the school art show was a beautiful demonstration of the fact that despite her mental illness – maybe even because of it – she could love and support her daughter.

Similarly, ‘Gratitude’ was one of my favourite poems. Raphaelle’s mum was writing in a gratitude journal, and Raphaelle was grateful to see her mum getting better, not just for her sake, but because she, Raphaelle, needed her mum.  It was so important to see a character receiving treatment and adhering to it, and for Raphaelle as a young person to see her mother modelling that behaviour.

Although this review focused almost entirely on the mental health elements of the novel, I’d hate to overlook its many other important themes/ideas. For example, I was impressed by its exploration of intolerance, particularly in regards to Samir’s cultural background, as well as the role of censorship in artistic expression. The exploration of her little brother, Gabrielle, only alive for three minutes, was poignant and another aspect of the book about which I could write for a very long time.

I’m not really sure how comfortable I am with Raphaelle’s choice to have two boyfriends and am interested to see how that works out in the sequel, Capricious.

This was one of the few books I’ve found that focuses on a parent with an eating disorder, and only the third fictional novel. (Can anyone recommend any? Please let me know in the comments!) I stumbled upon it by chance after seeing a tweet that Gabrielle Prendergast wrote replying to someone else. Audacious is a well-written and much-needed addition to the literature around families where a parent has an eating disorder.


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