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Mary and Catherine Loudon grew up in the same middle class household and both had the benefit of an expensive education and the other trappings on a secure childhood. Young Mary idolised her older sister but Catherine did not grow up to enjoy the type of success that would be expected of a woman who had grown up in a relatively privileged environment, instead she spent the final portion of her life living in a squalid flat in Bristol cut off from her family. Her family were shocked to hear of her death and Mary set out on a journey to discover exactly who her sister was and how she really lived.
Catherine was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age which is a disorder which is poorly understood. It led her to isolate herself from her family, have few friends and live a life which most of us would see as very negative, she was never able to hold down a job or maintain relationships and lived in supported accommodation, certainly that is not the life which any of us dream of as the ideal for our children.
People with schizophrenia often suffer from delusions and hallucinations and their internal world may make little sense to the rest of us. Catherine had an obsession with Tibet and was convinced she had been imprisoned in India. Whether or not something is true does not really matter, if a belief is strongly held it is real to the sufferer and their world can be a scary place to live in. I liked the fact that this book went some way to combating some of the myths about schizophrenia, many people believe a person with this illness is violent for example which is rarely true. There is one section in the book which is particularly poignant and it is diary extracts from the sister's father when he travelled to India to bring his obviously ill daughter home to the UK at the beginning of her illness and we discover her delusions may not be so far from the truth after all.
Mary set about discovering as much as she could about her older sisters life by visiting the places and people she knew. Conversations with the caretaker of her flats, her GP, the local shopkeeper, a nun and priest help to paint a picture of a person who was much more than the illness which ruled her life. Catherine was a familiar figure in the streets of Bristol and well liked by the people she chose to share her life with. As well as discovering the mundane facts about Catherine's life there are some shocks in store for Mary.
Mary Loudon came across as fairly self obsessed and arrogant throughout the book, for example at one point she mentioned how good looking the women in her family were and harps on about her own successful life a lot. While some of the book was really interesting others become dull with Mary over analysing her own reactions to her discoveries about Catherine's life and constantly reassuring herself that she was a good enough sister. In some respects this is a good book to read but it could have been condensed a lot to edit out some of the worst of the naval gazing. I didn't feel like I particularly knew Catherine by the end of the book but then neither did Mary but I found reading about her life was interesting.
There are many people like Catherine in our society, people who do not live by the same rules as the rest of us and may appear to the rest of us as a bit odd but this does not give us the right to judge them or write them off as less valuable. A book like this helps us to understand the lives of others and help advance the public perception of schizophrenia and that is where its value lies.