This is a short but compelling story of descent into schizophrenia. On the face of it, it is a very ordinary rites of passage type story of the young Amanda struggling to come to terms with her adulthood and identity. But she’s struggling against insurmountable odds. There is a secret which blights her whole life. She believes that she was born a twin and that her twin sister was ‘thrown in the dustbin’ shortly after birth. But Amanda is convinced that her twin ‘Jo’ is still alive and wants to find her, to make herself whole.
Through the twists and turns of the story, dealing with her alcoholic mother, her poetry stealing stepsister and her fairly inconsequential stepfather, Amanda is increasingly dissociated and lives more and more in her ‘own’ reality. What is hard for the reader to gauge (and this is the strength of the story) is just whose reality is ‘the truth.’ Or what indeed truth might mean in this context.
Amanda struggles, pretty much as all young people struggle, for much of the novel, but then it becomes clear that this is something much more serious. She is in the throes of a breakdown and this breakdown is at least partly in consequence of the terrible family ‘secret’ that has been kept. Her mother denies her claims about her twin sister. I don’t want to spoil the story but suffice it to say things are not what you would imagine at all and you feel real sympathy for Amanda who loses the struggle to ‘hold it together’ and one can hardly blame her. It’s a very significant insight into the schizophrenic mindset and how in psychotic episodes one lives in a completely different world. I experienced the same feelings I did when watching ‘A Beautiful Mind’ where one is incapable of distinguishing what is ‘real’ and what is not. This is down to the writing which dissociates the reader in a way consistent with the experience of the schizophrenic. It can be disturbing at times, upsetting in both form and content, but that’s the whole point. The ending is abrupt – which I’m assuming is a deliberate intent to show that a) there are no ‘happy endings’ in life and b) there are not really ‘endings’ in life and c) that what we are looking at is a very very small beacon of hope, a very small new beginning rather than an ending. If you can allow the novel this then you will learn something from it. Otherwise you may simply be disappointed that ‘the story’ doesn’t come to a ‘conclusion.’ I can live with the abruptness because I think its stylistically intentional – though of course I want to know more about what happens to Amanda next. The abrupt ending had me wondering though if such a desire was in fact voyeuristic – but really it’s just the expectation of the reader at work, looking for a structure that comforts and satiates. This novel certainly doesn’t do that but it’s all the stronger for it. It’s a brave telling of a lifestory which may be fiction or fact in origin. The message above all that it passes on is that all actions have consequences beyond the intention and that keeping family secrets can cause huge emotional and mental problems to family members. Which is a message everyone should be made aware of. When mental health problems affect more than one in four people, it’s important to bring a realisation that it is the ‘ordinary’ things in life which can cause mental ill health, it’s not something people are ‘born’ with. It’s not because they are ‘odd’ or ‘weak’ or in some way strange. It’s about vulnerability under pressure. Something we would all do well to remember. For that, as well as for keeping me ‘guessing’ through an uncomfortable but sadly familiar story, I thank Kate Rigby. The abruptness of the ending had another impact too – it made me very keen to read more of her work.
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