I’m back! My sunburn has turned to tan so I’m ready to get back to working here in drizzly England. One thing I am already missing dearly, however, is the possibility of doing nothing but read a book on the beach all day. In an attempt to relive it, here is a small review of a book I demolished on holiday.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the debut novel from Gail Honeyman. The New York Times named it a ‘Book to Breeze Through This Summer’ and they aren’t wrong. I read this in a grand total of two sittings. It’s a charming read. Not too complex, not too wordy, but with the most endearing characters and heartbreaking moments.
Now, this book could definitely be categorised as an airport read. The tone of it is not dissimilar to books like The Rosie Project or Sofia Khan is Not Obliged but the underlying issues it deals with are much darker. After hearing Eleanor’s conversations with her mother and subtle hints towards a traumatic past, we get the sense that something awful has happened to this woman. The main source of tension from the book comes from finding out just what happened to her. There are many clues throughout – I’m the sort of person who likes to guess the ending – and they’re only just under the surface. It’s accessible and sort of expected but Honeyman’s charactersation of Eleanor makes your heart break for her all the same.
One of my favourite things about this book is that its incredibly satisfying. There are a lot of recognisable tropes in this novel – girl struggles with bitchy coworkers, girl drinks at home alone, girl pines after dreamboat instead of noticing what’s been under her nose the whole time!!! – but this only added to my enjoyment. I don’t want to be thinking too hard on holiday, I just want to be sucked in and be pulled along for the ride. My absolute favourite trope was that of the makeover. As a less-than-attractive teen who had (has) no natural fashion sense, I felt… a strong affinity for Eleanor. You know how in teen movies there’s the makeover montage (Princess Diaries anyone?), well, somehow Honeyman does this in word form. You see Eleanor discover hair, makeup, nails and fashion in a clumsy way. It’s adorable and so, so real. What?? It’s satisfying. I’ve been socialised by all those movies to love a good makeover.
Lastly, the characters are just right. In another novel, in another circumstance, I would say the supporting characters have been written lazily. But for this world, and for what this book achieves, they are just right. Aside from ‘the musician’, I know someone like every one of the characters in this book. I even found myself inserting them into the story as I was reading it. They are real people. Coworkers and store clerks and nice old women. It’s their relationship with Eleanor that really tells us something. Eleanor has, as you find out throughout the book, had an awful past that she’s somewhat blocked from her memory. It comes out in dribs and drabs but never enough to make her a sympathetic figure to those around her. They just see her as weird. But just like all the other characters, I could see myself meeting an Eleanor. Knowing an Eleanor, working with an Eleanor. What this book does is warn you that people have shit going on. No matter how under the surface, it always pays to be kind, first and foremost. It tells us that empathy is invaluable. The visceral reality that Honeyman presents us with doesn’t let you leave without thinking before you judge someone for being odd.
Best of all, this book is sweet. Eleanor is troubled, she has more baggage than a transatlantic flight but she never pities herself. Her tone, her voice, whilst grounded a lot in delusion and denial, is light in the most part. The contrast this provides with the dark sections and content of the book work to create a really full-feeling piece of literature, without ever feeling too heavy or depressing. It ends on a beautifully positive note, and embraces you warmly as you head out.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is published by HarperCollins and is available in all good bookstores. I got mine for half price in Waterstones! Thanks for reading and leave me some comments if you’ve read this book too, I want to talk about it more!
Here we are – the first of the heavy dissertation texts. First, I need to do a teeny bit of disclaiming. I haven’t actually finished this book. I took it out of my university library to read before I headed home for the summer but, unfortunately, did not reach the end. I will go into why I think this was later on, but I apologise in advance to those who may have read it and think this analysis is just an uninformed mess because it could very well be.
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is a novel written by Joanne Greenberg (pen name Hannah Green) in 1964 based around a young girl, Deborah Blau, and her three years as an institutionalised schizophrenic. Not to be confused with the Lynne Anderson song of the same name, the titular phrase provides a basis for almost all of my analysis for the book. Titles are important, guys! So, as a jumping off point for, well.. all my points, I am going to use the scene from where the title is taken. In short, Deborah is visiting her therapist, Dr. Fried (yep, really), after a patient-on-nurse attack. Here is a small passage:
“But you see, I have no part in what is to be done on the wards; I am not an administrative doctor.”
Deborah saw the match lighting dry fuel. “What good is your reality, when justice fails and dishonesty is glossed over and the ones who keep faith suffer. Helene kept her bargain about Ellis and so did I. What good is your reality then?”
“Look here,” Furii said. “I never promised you a rose garden. I never promised you perfect justice…” (Chapter 13).
These few sentences sum up so many of the themes, ideas and conflicts in the book. Deborah’s statement about reality and Dr. Fried’s response (called by her Yri name, Furii) almost paraphrases what the whole book is about – it is a template, almost, a microcosm or synecdoche on the conceptual level rather than the word. It is unclear whether Deborah’s opinion is a symptom of her illness or whether her illness is a result of this unhappiness with reality. Dr. Fried, in comparison, is clinical and harsh in response, yet we assume truthful and realistic. It examples the struggle between Deborah and Fried, illness and health, internal and external realities. This brings me on to my first point of discussion.
Text World Theory
I first came across this theory in my year 2 Literary Linguistics module (or it may have been in a language one in first year I can’t remember I’m sorry lecturers if you’re reading this) and just thought it was the coolest thing. I’ll try and explain it as clearly as possible but forgive me if this gets a bit rambly. Essentially, Text World Theory says that humans understand the world around them by constructing versions of it in their heads in which to run simulations on. Much like the theory that nightmares are just your unconscious brain training you for dangerous situations, Text World Theory provides a basis for a similar function. You create a world in your mind that has all the struggles of reality but without the consequences in order to inform your behaviour in the real world. In prose fiction, creating a good text-world is imperative to the reader accepting what happens as the true reality of the characters and settings of the book. Without a believable text-world, we just wouldn’t engage. There are so many applications of this theory, so if you want to learn more head over to the Text World Theory website or to the awesome Prof. Joanna Gavins’ twitter page if you want to know more.
Now, the reason I mention this is that Text World Theory can inform so much upon mental illness narratives. So many disorders, especially anxiety and paranoid ones, take hold through constructing uncomfortable or distressing versions of reality and convincing the individual that that is the reality of their world. That the terrible scenarios that the mind concocts are just projections of the truth. After repeated use, this pathway in the brain becomes stronger and stronger, until an individual’s behaviours becomes based purely around the avoidance or maintenance of certain patterns in order to avoid pain or conflict. You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s dog, right? Bell rings, dog gets fed. After a while, the sound of bell ringing triggers dog’s salivation glands. It’s called classical conditioning and forms the basis of the school of psychology known as behaviourism. An important set of experiments in this school came from B. F. Skinner in the 1930s, in which he distinguishes between different types of conditioning. One such strain is that of negative and positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is when you repeat a behaviour so that it leads to rewards, eg. pressing a button to receive food. The opposite is negative reinforcement, where you repeat a behaviour in order to avoid a negative situation, eg. pressing a button so you don’t get electric shocked. Skinner did this with rats, but I’m hoping you can see what I’m getting at here. Many anxiety disorders, such as OCD, take root and grow through this kind of process. If I don’t shut the front door 3 times every time I go out, I will get burgled. If I don’t do exactly 72 scrubs of my toothbrush every morning and night, I will get gingivitis. It’s about performing something to avoid negative consequences. This can, however, expand wider. If I don’t leave my house, I won’t have to face possible humiliation. If I don’t eat, I’ll be skinny and people will love me. You see? Despite everyone probably experiencing these kinds of things once in a while, it is the unhealthy mind that latches to this and that is where lots of our diagnoses come from.
Okay, but how does that relate to Text World Theory and to I Never Promised You A Rose Garden? A main feature of Deborah’s characterisation in the book comes from her internal reality construction. She creates a whole world in her mind in which she retreats, or occasionally is dragged into, when she experiences an episode. Named Yr, this world has gods and eternal pits and fire. It’s pretty intense. Here’s a quick snippet of Deborah’s view of Yr in comparison to the Here (reality):
To escape engulfment there was only the Here, with its ice-cold doctor and his notebook, or Yr with its golden meadows and gods. But Yr also held its regions of horror and lostness and she no longer knew to which kingdom in Yr there was passage. (Chapter 2).
We can see here that Yr can be beautiful. It has golden meadows and long grasses in which Deborah feels free. But it also has regions of eternal darkness and unimaginable suffering. Sound familiar? This constructed world in Deborah’s mind is meant to reflect the real world in some fantastical way. It’s called Yr, for one. I have to admit, it took me until she said it alongside ‘the Here’ for me to get the comparison, but there it is. It has its own language, Yri, and names for people in the real world – Deborah has an assortment of epithets including ‘bird-one’ and Dr. Fried is renamed ‘Furii’ as seen earlier. Everything in Yr can, to some degree, be linked to something in the real world. When Deborah has a mental break and is taken to be strapped to the wet cloth, she retreats to Yr where she falls into darkness for four days straight. It all links in some way. Her childhood teasing has filtered into Yr in the form of the whisperings of the ‘Collect’. Nothing is new, necessarily, but reshaped versions of Deborah’s reality, past or present. Yr, however real feeling to Deborah, is a simulated reality in Deborah’s mind, with direct links to her actual surroundings. To what success this simulated reality informs on the real one is an important theme in the book.
These are mental representations, just like the one we create for the text-world of the book. The biggest obstacle I found in connecting to the story was that I found Yr to be a smidge too fantastical. I found it unlikely that, no matter her illness, Deborah seemed too intelligent to believe this world in her head was a real one. Once I decided to read the story from the assumption that Deborah didn’t believe it was real, but escaping to Yr over the cold world of the Here, I found it a lot more enjoyable. Why? Because I started viewing Yr as a text-world narrative Deborah was living. The mental representation she had of Yr was so progressed and in depth that it is easy for her to accept it as a kind of truth. This is what a good piece of prose fiction does. The text-world we create when reading the novel itself is reflected in the internal reality Deborah creates in her mind. Accepting this gave the representation of Yr a newfound credibility to me. When you read Harry Potter you don’t sneer every second that ‘that’s unlikely’. Fully investing in the text-world provides all kinds of leeway for fantasy elements and that is what I believe Deborah is experiencing in Yr. Much like reading for the likes of you and me, Deborah can allow Yr the unbelievable elements because her mind creates the world out of a desire to escape. She holds it as truth with both hands because it seems better than the alternative.
Schizophrenia and Ageing
Finally, I want to note the age of the book. Of course, this is not necessarily a point of criticism, but I think, due to the content of the book, it is a point of discussion. Research into schizophrenia is still relatively limited. In recent years it has been accepted that ‘schizophrenia’ is merely an umbrella term for a whole spectrum of symptoms and is mildly reductionist. The DSM-V clinical outline for schizophrenia would allow two patients with completely different symptoms to receive the same diagnosis, for example. One main linking factor is that or paranoia and delusions, both of which Deborah shows in some degree in the book. However, a theme in this kind of behaviour is that this manifests in real-life intrusions. For example, people with schizophrenia might believe that the government is out to get them and thus finds evidence for this in their real lives. On the other hand, a patient may be going about their regular routine and hear voices commenting or criticising what they are doing. These are known as positive symptoms, things that occur in addition to real life. Negative symptoms, such as avolition and alogia, represent the detriment of regular functions. The difference in Deborah’s symptoms here is that her hallucinatory world is completely separate from the real one. Despite the comparisons, no characters, except herself, exist in both planes. I think perhaps this can be attributed to the understanding of the disorder at the time of writing. As a modern reader, this is what I found hardest to reconcile. My understanding of schizophrenic disorders did not match up with the representations in the book, therefore detaching me a little in my experience of it.
I did enjoy the half or so I read of this novel. Green’s writing style is engaging and fluid, her construction of Yr fascinating and rich. If I compared that bit to anything, it would be similar to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. However, I didn’t find myself reaching for it. Maybe that has to do with my subconscious awareness that it was kind of work, but I feel like it was more to do with my trouble finding the main character believable. My gut instinct is that this book is becoming time-bound. However, going back to that first titular quote, the moralistic message rings true even now. ‘”I never promised you a rose garden…”‘ might not float in psychiatrists’ offices nowadays but I appreciate the sentiment. The more we understand about mental illness leads to higher rates of medicalisation, which in turn leads to higher rates of medication. While I’m not slamming medication, there is an increasing risk of people assuming they can take a pill for mental disorders instead of therapy and expect instant results. This is what Dr. Fried means when she says this to Deborah. She can’t cure her straight away, it doesn’t work like that. Deborah has to put in the work, too. It’s a hard, long road but it’s important to face it head on. In this way, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is a little timeless.
I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Hannah Green was published in 1964 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. It was developed into a film in 1977 and a play in 2004. I’d be super interested to see what those look like, so if anyone has any comments on them let me know. Also, as a general disclaimer for these posts, I am not a psychologist so I apologise for any inaccuracy – I have done as much research as I can in order to present things as fairly as possible. Thanks for reading!
As an unwritten rule, once it gets above 22 degrees Celsius in Britain, we freak out. If it gets above 25, the old ‘Hot, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah, might be too hot’ conversation starts emerging. And then you get this past week. Consistently hitting between 26 and 31 for a full five days, people have NOT been handling it. Despite loving the sun in my head, my body hates it. I burn, not tan, I get heat induced headaches after half an hour in the sun and for some reason I look super tired all the time when it’s hot out. So this morning was a glorious surprise. I woke up, or should I say was woken up, by the sound of rain. Heavy rain. Then a breeze came through my window – a cool one. Then there was thunder. And as I lay there, listening to the sounds of stormy weather, I realised how lovely it felt to be awake and alive and feeling all those feelings and hearing all those sounds. Not least because I was excited by the prospect of being able to actually go outside for more than 20 minutes unprotected.
This leads me on to the book for this review. This book is one that I actually read last summer, during what, in retrospect, was a really bad brain… two months. It was lent to me by a friend who was lent it by his parents who said it was amazing and that everyone should read it. I don’t often pick up this kind of format, but this guy NEVER recommends books so I was kind of amazed enough to try it. Now, in a much more positive place, I read it again just to see. Here’s what I found.
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
The blurb of this book states it is ‘more than a memoir. It is a book about making the most of your time on earth’. It’s non-fiction but written like a diary format novel – think Bridget Jones, Sufia Khan is Not Obliged or the Georgia Nicholson series (there are a lot of nervy bs in this book too). It consists mostly of linear storytelling with inserts of lists, experimental stream-of-consciousness passages and internal dialogues reported in a playscript format. You follow Matt through 8 years of his life and various mental breakdowns. You meet his parents, his colleagues and his wonderful girlfriend-now-wife Andrea. You see, step-by-step, his ebbing and flowing, his sinking and rising and, finally, his recovery and stabilising. And it gets you, it truly does. I cried, I think. I remember feeling so relieved and pleased for him, but mostly I felt hope. I didn’t realise it at the time, but so much of Matt’s experiences were a little too easy for me to empathise with. A favourite quote is ‘I had never been one of those males who were scared of tears. I was a Cure fan, for God’s sake. I’d been emo before it was a term.’ My parents both love The Cure and when I was growing up my mum used to play their video albums to get me to go to sleep. Alongside The Smiths who, admittedly, I was listening to a bit young for how nihilistic they are, I always had that understanding that having emotions is fine! Expressing your emotions is cool! Cry if you want to, saying boy don’t cry is dumb! It’s those little things sprinkled through the book that make this so easy to engage with – Matt is real, you can feel that in the writing, and it makes his journey all the more engaging.
In terms of connection, Matt Haig really nails how to communicate complex states of mind. There’s a part where Matt lists what it feels like to have a panic attack, then recalls a time where he couldn’t go to the corner shop at the end of the road alone without having one. He gives you a clinical-looking list of steps or symptoms, then chucks you into a scenario in which those things happen like an unstoppable tide. The combination of objective understanding with emotional reaction means we, as readers, can feel just as frustrated as Matt when we can’t control the outcomes. We start expecting the worst before it can ever happen, and that, my friends, it what depression feels like. He uses a metaphor of the demon on his back, licking his ears while he’s at the theatre or in bed with his girlfriend. Matt Haig’s writing is nothing if not to the point and to the heart. His language isn’t fancy, but it is poetic and emotive. You understand everything that is going on at every stage in the process, something imperative for people to read. His simplicity and honesty translates so well because it provides the experience he had to other people in understandable and relatable terms. A Sunday Times bestseller, this book has reached not only the percentage of people who suffer from mental health problems, but the 2 in 3 people who don’t. It creates such an inescapable empathy through genuine care for him and his family that you find yourself completely understanding his brain along the way. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
I did, however, have some problems with it. Matt says himself in the book that we like to compartmentalise things and give labels to what is a much more complex set of factors than just OCD, schizophrenia or depression. I get the feeling that reading this book again would be a completely different experience each time, depending on the place that you’re in when you read it. When I read it, in the midst of a suffocating bout of depersonalisation and anxiety, it made me angry. I knew I had some of these things Matt was experiencing, but I didn’t react in the same way. I didn’t lash out at my family, I could go to the shop, I didn’t feel a demon licking my ear. I found myself getting defensive that I was doing it wrong. That my brain was faulty, but faulty in the wrong way. I couldn’t relate, and I was tempted to discard the book as reductionist because of this. But on a reread, I felt entirely different. I thought Matt relayed everything perfectly, sensitively and delicately to his own truth. I found it smart and funny in ways I didn’t during the first read. This reaction, to me, is fascinating. It’s a super quick read – it only took me a few days – so i’s definitely worth trying more than once to see if the same thing happens to you.
This makes it hard for me to really review it one way or the other. Reasons to Stay Alive is a brilliant memoir of one man’s experience. In one way, it felt isolating and confusing to someone who refused to acknowledge their own struggles. In another, it is gut-wrenching and close-to-the-bone but ultimately hopeful. Most importantly, it is educational and aware. Matt Haig is careful to insert lots of information and offhand advisory sentences to those who suffer from mental illness as well as to the carers of those who do. For everyone, it is worth reading. For some, like me, it is worth reading a couple times. It is honest, brutal, and, dare I say it, a really important signpost towards a larger conversation. This book opens avenues for discussion and understanding for both people who suffer from anxiety, depression, or any other manner of mental illness, and those who don’t. All aboard the empathy train, people!