Books featuring a mother with a mental illness

Book Review: A Million Things

Author: Emily Spurr
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Text (March, 2021)

Content warning: Mentions depression and suicide.

digital drawing of a tree with orange leaves, a dog (blue) to the right, walking away. The words A Million Things are written in capital letters over the tree.
Image source.
Image description in alt text.

Rae is ten years old, and she’s tough. She’s had to be: life with her mother has taught her the world is not her friend. Now suddenly her mum is gone and Rae is alone, except for her dog Splinter.

Rae can do a lot of things pretty well for a kid. She can take care of herself and Splints, stay under the radar at school and keep the front yard neat enough that the neighbours won’t get curious. But she is gnawed at by fear and sadness; haunted by the shadow of a terrible secret.

Lettie, who lives next door, might know more about Rae than she lets on. But she has her own reasons for keeping the world at arm’s length. When Rae finds out what they are, it seems like she and Lettie could help each other.

But how long can a friendship last when it’s based on secrets?”

Emily Spurr’s A Million Things is an exquisite story that explores Rae’s experience as a child of a parent with a mental illness (COPMI). The novel was written in first person, direct address, similar to The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Though not a common literary device, it was an effective one. In this case, it underscored the bond Rae felt with her mother and ensured that although she wasn’t an active part of the plot, Rae’s mum was never far from the reader’s mind. The novel explored themes of caring responsibilities, mental illness and grief.

Spurr made it clear that Rae was a young carer without labelling her as such. Rae took it upon herself to take care of her mother, even after her mother was gone. Rae’s feelings about her role are complex and ever-changing. For instance, after running from a man with lewd intentions one night, Rae thought of her mum, each idea given a new line for emphasis:
“I hate you.
I need you.
Please don’t be gone.”

When her mum was still around, Rae understood, as many COPMI do, that there would be good days and bad ones. Her mum loved watering the garden and, on good days, “you’d flick the [hose] spray at me and the droplets would land on my eyelashes…And I’d grin with my whole face, blinking at you until the droplets ran off my lashes and down my cheeks.” Conversely, on bad days, “the hose would run until the garden was soaked…until I turned off the tap, took the hose from your hand and led you inside.” When Rae’s mum was gone, Rae devoted herself to covering her absence, literally and figuratively.

Rae’s resilience and maturity are traits common among COPMI.   One part of taking care of her mother and herself was that Rae never explicitly thought or stated what had happened to her mum, even though it was clear to the reader from the first few pages that she had taken her own life and Rae had found her body. Keeping her mum’s secret left Rae isolated from everyone except Splints the dog and, eventually, Lettie.

Much like Rae’s mother, Lettie was a multi-dimensional character who happened to have a mental illness, hoarding disorder. Lettie was cantankerous and stubborn and generous. She knew that keeping so much stuff was irrational and dangerous but there is a big difference between knowing something to be true and feeling it, especially when mental illness is concerned.

Spurr presented two characters dealing with their grief in different, maladaptive ways. Rae’s loss was recent, whereas Lettie’s was many years in the past, and yet they both lived encumbered by their loss – quite literally, in Lettie’s case. Rae was at the beginning of her life, Lettie closer to the end, Rae lost a parent and Lettie a child; their situations mirroring one another in so many ways.  

My favourite line was when Rae reflected on the items she had collected since her mum had been gone, and realised that she could understand how Lettie clung to material possessions as a form of comfort:
“I think about the things I collect since you’ve been gone. The way I search them out and place them carefully on the porch. Collecting something to fill the space. To mark it.”

A Million Things is a beautiful novel, written with a gentleness befitting its subject matter. Rae is a character you won’t soon forget.

You can buy a copy of A Million Things from Readings independent bookstore.

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