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At the beginning of World War II, Sandy Grey wants to sign up to fight, but is stopped by his father, who has other ideas for his son's life. When Sandy fights back, he is sent to an asylum. There, unsure of exactly what he is doing there, he tries to keep himself sane by writing about a man who was wrongly accused of murder many years before and died in the asylum when it was a jail. Sandy hopes that by proving this man innocent, he will also be able to prove to the asylum authorities that he is able to live a normal life. He is helped in his mission by a doctor who is on his side and a widow, who has her own problems, but thwarted by a psychopathic asylum assistant, who takes an instant dislike to Sandy. Will Sandy be able to prove that he is sane?
For many years, I have suffered from depression and I have spent several weeks on a psychiatric ward because of a breakdown. As such, I am very interested in mental health issues and find the changes in the mental health system over the years fascinating. Back in the 1940s, lobotomies and electric shock treatment were very common treatments, and cruel though it seems now, they were thought to be reasonable options at the time. I therefore had high hopes for this book. Unfortunately, although it did provide an interesting insight (if ficitional) into the treatment of a patient in 1940s Canada, I found this book didn't quite meet my expectations.
Sandy Grey is a very young man - just nineteen - when he is incacerated in the asylum. Although it is not explained exactly why he ended up there until later in the book, it is made clear that he is there because of a mistake, rather than any long history of mental illness. Despite this, I still found it very difficult to empathise with his predicament. It is hard to understand exactly why this is the case - the man is bullied by one of the asylum assistants and has a love for the animals for which it is his job to care - both reasons that would usually melt my heart - but I just couldn't bring myself to care all that much for what happened to him. He does build relationships with some of the men in the asylum, including two of the doctors, one of the assistants and a patient, and also has a mother/son relationship with the widow, Georgina, but none of these relationships seem to be realistic and just end up being part of the book without really adding anything.
The book is written in quite an interesting way. We have Sandy's story, which provides the main bulk of the book, but alongside this, we also have the story of Alan Macaulay (told by Sandy), who suffered a miscarriage of justice years before. The author seems to suggest that by telling Alan's story, Sandy's own predicament will be sorted. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite come off and by the end of the book, Alan's story has more or less drifted into obscurity.
The standard of writing is high. Marilyn Bowering has apparently won awards for her writing and it is easy to see why - she writes clearly and fluently and her descriptions of scenery in particular are very good. Had her writing talent stretched to her descriptions of the characters, I think that this book would have been much stronger. My only criticism of her writing is during Sandy's conversations with Karl, a German patient. Instead of adding his accent into his speech, Bowering puts the pronuciation in brackets after it - for example, 'Things do not go so well (vell) for him.' This would have been fine if it just happened once or twice, but after the tenth time, I found it very irritating.
I think the main problem with this book is that it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. There is a love story, two miscarriages of justice, bullying and an escape story - all tied up with the desire to find out what the point of life is. I found that this made it hard to understand the point of the book and left me with a sense of aimlessness. I didn't at any time consider giving it up, but nor was I desperate to pick it up.
On the whole, I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in mental health, particularly from a historical point of view. If all you are looking for is a good read, then I don't think you will find it here. The book is well-written, but the story is just not gripping enough.
The book is available from play.com for £6.99. Published by Maia Press, it has 304 pages. ISBN-10: 1904559263.
This review first appeared on thebookbag.co.uk and was written by me.
The day after World War II is declared in Canada, Sandy Grey's father, a fundamentalist preacher, won't give him permission to fight. When Sandy's attempt to oppose his father and his upbringing turns violent, he is incarcerated in an asylum for the criminally insane. There he meets Karl, a German; Winchell, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War; Bob, a homosexual who is singled out for favours by a brutal asylum attendant; along with Russians, Chinese and a few hated Japanese. Unsure how to convince his doctor that he is sane, or of how he fits into the world within a world that is the asylum, Sandy is determined to uncover an historical miscarriage of justice in the hope that it will, by analogy, prove his innocence. What It Takes To Be Human exposes the acute parallels between those who are incarcerated and those whose lives are being torn apart by distant conflict.