“ Author: Clare Allan / Genre: Fiction „
I enjoy reading about mental health issues as I have studied psychology and also been treated for post-natal depression so when I heard about this book I was eager to read it. There were mixed reviews but I thought perhaps it was from people who don't have an understanding of mental health so had rated it low and that surely I would agree with those who really liked it. I got it out of the library and really looked forward to reading it.
The book is based within a mental health institution in London. I thought it would be really interesting to read about what it is like in these places. The story is told by a patient called N. N has had a traumatic childhood where she was in and out of institutions and her mother committed suicide when she was just 12. N has been brought up around mental health issues so is no stranger to various problems and it isn't a surprise that she is a patient within the institute. One day a patient is discharged and a few days later kills herself, everyone is in uproar; how could the doctors have discharged her when she obviously wasn't well enough? But then there is a new scenario for the patients to worry about- a new patient has been admitted and this patient is Poppy Shakespere. N is asked by the doctors to be her 'guide' to help her to settle in. N is really pleased, she feels like she is important and enjoys being a guide but she doesn't show it, she's moody and shrugs it off.
Poppy doesn't believe that she is mentally ill, she cannot understand why she was admitted and keeps declaring it's a mistake. She needs to know how to get out of the place but she is told if she doesn't attend the centre she will have her daughter taken away from her. N helps Poppy to figure out how to convince doctors that she is not mad but then that makes people refuse to help her so then the plan has to change to convince them that she really is mad...
The idea of this novel is to point out how confusing and difficult the mental health world is. That theories and boxes that patients are tried to be put in just simply do nothing but harm patients, waste time and cause many problems. I do think that this book achieved that in a way but it was hugely exaggerated which made it quite difficult reading.
Another way in which this book was full of complex ideas was that nothing was explained properly. The way that N spoke was very disjointed, she would say things which were obviously not true such as recalling how Poppy told everyone about how she ended up being admitted but then nothing was explained afterwards such as how Poppy really did come about being admitted and it left me wondering whether N had made up the story or whether Poppy had or what and I really felt like I needed someone to be a little voice in the background explaining what it was all about. There were loads of loose ends that were just not tied up and it was really disjointed again like when N returned home and spent many days in bed and Poppy turned up at her house in a mess needing to talk- we never found out what that was about or how it came to be that N did manage to get motivation to get out of bed. There were so many things that were not described that it was just confusing. I think the point of this was to try to get across how the mentally ill think, how it can be really dramatic one moment and then something else happening the next but it wasn't easy reading and i can't help but think it was actually not very sensitively described.
The way that N wrote was also very poor, lots of poor grammar and the wrong use of words and I think this was to portray her as being uneducated. The most educated one in the institution they portrayed as being a bit of a toff and they were really quite cruel towards him, everyone else was portrayed as being rather stupid and again i found this quite insulting to the mentally ill. So many people wind up in these institutions who are well educated but they didn't come across like this in the book. I don't know if it was so that the reader would realise how prejudiced we are towards the mentally ill or not but it just left me feeling confused and uncomfortable.
There is a part of me that wants to recommend this book to my book group to read so that we can discuss it and try to make sense of it together. It would be helpful to get a group of people to interpret it but I don't want to put them through it as not very much happens at all!
I was so confused by pretty much all of it, I didn't know who was being talked about at times, what jobs they had, whether what they were saying was true or made up or just exaggerated and although I understand that this is how the book was meant to come across I don't think it has done so properly. I think it is okay to make the book jump from one thing to another and have a character that is a bit scatty but this was so extreme that it didn't make an enjoyable read. Nothing was explained at the end. I started to question whether N was making it all up and Poppy had't really come to the institution, I wondered if it was all a social experiment and Poppy had been sent in to test to people... I basically questioned everything and this is probably what the author wanted. I suppose some people in mental institutions have paranoia and question what is happening to them in there so that part of the book and her reasoning for making us question things I get but I don't like how nothing was explained at the end.
There were quite a few instances where I felt like I had missed an entire chapter out. I even flicked back a few pages and had to re-read and then check the page numbers in case a page had fallen out! Sometimes I thought it doesn't matter it will be explained later... but it never was!
I don't know how i feel about this book. Having never been within a mental institute as a patient I don't know how true to life this is. I gather this book is meant to be a sattire about the state of the mental health service and how it's all about trying to stick to budgets rather than patient's wellbeing at times but this was so extreme it was just a very bizarre read.
The front of the book shows a girl sitting on a fence with a dog's head. This is a weird picture and I think it pretty much sums up the entirety of this book. The picture doesn't make sense and neither does this book!
I found it hard to relate to the patients in there, one minute I thought I knew them but then they'd do something odd again and in the end I couldn't understand any of the characters and that was really bizarre. I do understand that in a mental institute there will be an element of this but it was just quite poor taste to portray them all in this way.
I don't recommend reading this book but if you do can you please explain it to me?!
Set in Dorothy Fish, a day patient ward which is part of the fictitious Abbadon Unit mental institution in North London, Poppy Shakespeare is a novel which takes a look at the British mental health service from the inside out and exposes some major flaws in the system.
The story is told through the eyes of N, a patient on the Dorothy Fish ward for the last thirteen years. Along with a motley crew of other long term voluntary patients, they spend their days idling the time away by smoking and swapping medication and aiming to never get discharged. This routine is broken by the arrival of a new and extremely different patient - Poppy Shakespeare. Seemingly admitted against her will it is Poppy's aim to get out as soon as possible and N makes it her job to help her.
But unless Poppy can prove she is actually mad, she can't begin the process of proving that she is not mad - sounds insane right?
Described as a cross between Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest it is easy to see where these comparisons come from. With Poppy unable to prove she's not mad until she is properly diagnosed and assigned a level of madness she is literally stuck in a Catch-22 situation - stuck in a maddening infinite loop with no signs of escape.
As for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the similarities are clear - both told from the view of a patient who's world is forever changed due to the arrival of a person who will not conform to the rules. The only difference for me here is that whilst Ken Kesey never spent any time in a mental institution, Clare Allen did actually spend 10 years as an outpatient after suffering a breakdown aged 25 and you wonder how much of Poppy Shakespeare is actually autobiographical or at the very least based upon actual experiences.
The thing I love about this book is the way it is told through the eyes of an unreliable narrator - I kept getting echoes from Catcher in the Rye where you find yourself wondering just what was real and what was a figment of our narrator's imagination which creates a wonderfully surreal and disjointed atmosphere which can only emphasise the confusion in the mind of N and add to the unpredictable nature of the story.
In fact there is also a slight feel of Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time", with the way the chapters are given overly elaborate titles which are more a summary of what will be coming rather than a proper title and a slight OCD feel to the ordering of them. This feeling of confusion continues with some of N's language such as the constantly repeating phrase "Do you know what I'm saying" which is very noticeable throughout the narrative.
As a result of only viewing the story from N's perspective it is difficult to judge how accurate a view we are really getting on the British mental health system and all the supposed flaws much to the patients' detriment, but I suspect that it must resemble experiences Clare Allen went through during her own stay and so is probably quite realistic, despite the satirical spin that is put on it due to the nature of the narrator. It may well be exaggerated, but the problems are definitely there and need to be highlighted.
The character of N is very cleverly developed throughout the story through the style of language used and the use of sporadic memories and childhood anecdotes to subtly build her history and give you an understanding of how any why she is the way she is. With very bad grammar and the use of a lot of profanities there is a suggestion of low intelligence, but this is very sharply contradicted by the perceptive insights that N drops into her narration when describing the people and situations around her which give great depth to her character.
It is through N's insights that much of the humour in the story is gleaned and there are quite a few laugh out loud moments (which I learnt can be quite embarrassing when you're on a crowded train) which contrast against the darker, more serious subject matter of this book with great effect. Often it is just the descriptions of the antics of the other patients or "dribblers" as they are described which create the laughs.
So, even though the novel is called Poppy Shakespeare, it is actually more about the life of N and how the character of Poppy Shakespeare has a poignant effect on her life.
Poppy Shakespeare was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and I think these nominations were well deserved given the clever and complex style of writing Clare Allan has used to create such a moving story.
The nature of the narrator makes it a surreal and unpredictable story, and yet very humorous despite the tragic elements to the story, which has been clearly greatly influenced by the author's own experiences. Poppy Shakespeare is a gripping and compelling novel in the same vein as other novels such as Catcher in the Rye, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone that enjoys these type of novels.
N, a patient at the Dorothy Fish Day Hospital in North London, is surprised one day to be asked to show new patient Poppy Shakespeare around. Reluctantly, N agrees, although she doesn't see why she should when she's only been a patient for thirteen years - some have been there for much longer. However, Poppy Shakespeare turns out to be a breath of fresh air - not only does she look good, but she is the only patient who can't wait to be discharged and she doesn't believe she should be there in the first place.
Together with N, Poppy decides to fight the system so that she can be released before she really does go mad. The only problem is that in order to get released against doctor's orders, she needs a mental health solicitor. And to get a mental health solicitor, you need to be declared mentally ill and no-one will declare Poppy mentally ill because they know she wants to get released. Will Poppy succeed? Or will she get stuck in the system like the rest of them.
I have long wanted to get hold of this book, not just because it was so highly acclaimed by critics, but because I spent three months in a day hospital following a breakdown. In terms of this review, I think it's important to point that out, not because I feel sorry for myself, but because I am bound to compare my experiences with those of the characters in the book, created by the author who wrote this book after a stint in a day hospital herself.
The book is written by N, who has had a traumatic upbringing and limited education - the style of the writing is thus a direct copy of the way that N speaks. This involves a lot of 'all I done', 'ain't my fault', 'on account of', 'shouldn't of' and 'didn't never', interspersed with a fair old amount of swearing and slang. This is all fine, although it does seem a bit exaggerated at times, but my issue is that it adds to the fallacy that if you are mentally ill, you are 'thick'. Many of the patients I have met during my time in treatment are highly intelligent, but suffer from depression or other mental disorders, and I found the complete lack of grammar a bit insulting.
I strongly believe that although the stigma of mental health is slowly fading as people come to understand more about it, it is still very much swept under the carpet. Before I read this book, I was full of praise for Clare Allan for bringing the topic out into the open. Now I've read it, I think she may have actually done us a disservice. The characters in the book all appear to conform to stereotypes of 'mad' people - i.e. poor, uneducated and funny looking with it. I think her intention was to be funny, and it does sometimes work, but more often it just falls flat. There are undoubtedly some people in mental health services that look mentally ill, but many don't; there are people from all walks of life. I suspect I am being overly critical here and taking things too personally, but I found this rankled as I was reading. The insinuation that patients exaggerate their symptoms to avoid being discharged particularly annoyed me.
The book is a satire on the state of mental health services in this country. The law and policy surrounding mental health is definitely confusing, although not quite as much as in this book. However, although it is a satire, I didn't find the humour particularly amusing. Perhaps some of the issues are just too close to the bone for me, but despite the Guardian, Telegraph and Spectator calling it 'funny', I hardly ever broke into even a smile. I found the story confusing; at times it becomes almost surreal, which I think is an attempt on the part of the author to show that the mentally ill often see things in a different way to the healthy. Again, though, I thought it fell flat.
On the whole, I think this is a brave attempt to bring the British public up to date with the mental health system. Unfortunately, I think the stereotyping was a bad move and one that will only reaffirm many readers' views of those within the mental health services. As for the mental health service, yes, there are some weird rules and regulations, but my own personal experience is that they do the best they can with what they have and often the service is first-class.
I wish I could, but I can't really recommend this book. It is just not that entertaining and I suspect that the rave reviews the book received may be because reviewers don't want to be seen as non-PC.
If you are still interested, then the book is available from play.com for £5.99. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, it has 352 pages. ISBN: 9780747585848