Books featuring a father with a mental illness

Book review: The Peacock Detectives

Author: Carly Nugent
Publisher: Text (2018)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (for a middle grade readership)

The last time William Shakespeare and Virginia went missing Cassie found them sitting on a coiled hose behind the fire station, and Dad called ‘Cassie Andersen, Peacock Detective’. So this time she knows what to do – she’ll look for clues and track them down. But the clues lead her in an unexpected direction and Cassie finds herself investigating a confusing mystery about her family.

I can’t believe that The Peacock Detectives escaped my notice for so long! Middle grade by a Melbourne based author that features parental mental illness? Right up my alley! Carly Nugent wrote eloquently and graciously about a young girl at a pivotal time in her life, as Cassie had to confront grief, divorce and shifting dynamics within her friendships and family.

Nugent didn’t reveal that Cassie was a child of a parent with a mental illness (COPMI) immediately. Instead, it was revealed several chapters in, when Cassie admitted that both she and her dad sometimes had Those Days. On Those Days, Cassie’s dad could be “quiet and sad and lost inside himself,” and for Cassie the world became “boring and complicated” and “the only thing I want is sleep and I only want that so I don’t have to think about not wanting anything else.” Despite the fact that Cassie and her dad share the experience of Those Days (depression, to use the clinical term), they “never talk” about it. Cassie didn’t elaborate on why they didn’t talk about it but it is undoubtable that if someone (her mum, her dad, anyone) had offered Cassie some psychoeducation or given her the language for her condition she would have felt less alone in it.  Cassie, like many COPMI, experienced secondhand stigma about her father’s condition when an older student (Rhea Grimm) taunted Cassie by saying that her dad was a “crazy, psycho loser.” Interestingly, Rhea was a COPMI herself and in this way Nugent highlighted that not all COPMI adapt to their situations in the same way. Rhea lashed out at the world, whereas Cassie kept her fears inside, becoming the model student and daughter, coping by focusing on her detecting and storytelling.      

Given the high correlation between readers and writers, it is likely that many readers (young and old) would enjoy the way that Cassie breaks down the writing process in the story. Not only would this teach budding writers the fundamentals of storytelling (the inciting incident, the climax and so on), it also makes it a useful text for students to study/ analyse. Cassie reflected as she was telling the story that her initial idea (finding the peacocks) was not in fact the main plot of the story, and that certain characters whom she’d initially considered supporting (such as fellow COPMI Rhea Grimm)  were in actuality main characters, and integral to her own development. I know that as a writer, I certainly enjoyed reading about the process, and found Cassie’s fear that she wasn’t a real writer because sometimes she really didn’t want to write, both relatable and affirming.

There were several other excellent features of this novel, including Cassie’s friendship with Jonas and the way she experienced her parents’ divorce, her changing relationship with her sister, Diana and her grandfather’s declining health

An excellent novel with a light-hearted mystery and a rollercoaster emotional journey at its heart, The Peacock Detectives is a must-read for middle grade fans!   

You can buy a copy of The Peacock Detectives from Booktopia.

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