Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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Penguin UK cover (image: goodreads.com)

This book was one of the few review copies I have been accepting recently, and I’m glad I decided to read and review it, because it’s something a little different – but once I got into it I realised it actually is the sort of thing I like. Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung is what I would call an unconventional memoir – it is not a straight chronicle of someone’s life, but rather a story from that life that has significance, that means something to the author. It is an unusual story and a special one that deserves to be told.

Min Kym is a concert violinist, and as a child she was classed as a prodigy. Her list of achievements is certainly impressive, with awards and scholarships, huge concerts, and acceptance into the Purcell School of Music as well as the Royal Academy of Music. She has made a few recordings and these are available on iTunes and Spotify. I would recommend listening to the little album she released of songs that feature in this book – it is simply beautiful. One piece on it is very special to me as it will be played at my wedding in a couple of weeks! I’ve decided to use Min Kym’s recording as I walk down the aisle.

I am no expert in classical music, but I feel I learned a lot about it from this slim book. Kym speaks passionately about her love of music and how it feels to play. Her writing isn’t perfect but it doesn’t matter because she conveys a strong sense of her personality and personal experience, with the music but also with the people in her life, and most importantly with her violin. She repeatedly reminds the reader that it feels like part of her, that she does not feel whole without it, does not feel like herself. She states that she is two people – Min, and Min with a violin.

Gone is quite an emotional book, and you go on the ups and downs with Kym as she experiences huge career success, and intense love for her violin and the music she plays; but she also experiences difficult relationships and setbacks – and of course the biggest setback of all, the theft of her Stradivarius violin. This is the crux of the book, the tipping point in her life. There is the time before, when she had the violin; and the time after, when she is mourning for it, and suffering from its absence. Kym goes through a period of depression, and it takes her a long time to get back to her old life – but while the writing is emotional and personal, it never becomes sensational or melodramatic. Kym is in control of her story.

Min_Kym_web_image
Min Kym (image: deda.uk.com)

The writing is at its best when Min Kym is writing about music. Her language flows beautifully as she describes the sounds, the feelings, the images that music brings to mind; the way the violin feels in her hands and when she nestles it into her neck. It is like a child, a sacred object, a beautiful thing. She also talks eloquently about the violins she plays, how they were made and where they came from, and how these things affect the experience of the player as well as the sound that the violin makes. It is utterly fascinating.

I was also fascinated by Kym’s discussions and mentions of her sense of self in relation to the violin, and how this develops as she gets older. She started playing at such a young age that she always sees herself with a violin – it is an integral part of who she is. Her family moved from South Korea to the UK for her musical career, and this relationship between familial and national belonging and the violin and its music is wonderfully explored, from a practical as well as personal point of view.

Though only slim this is a rich volume filled with life and passion, joy and sorrow, silence and beautiful music. I would highly recommend Gone to anyone who loves unconventional memoirs, especially those with a love of or an interest in classical music, and the ways in which our passions shape our lives.

*

Published in 2017 by Viking, and imprint of Penguin, in the UK and Crown Publishing, part of PRH, in the US. My thanks to Viking for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

2015 PMC paperback (image: penguin.co.uk)
2015 PMC paperback (image: penguin.co.uk)

I had been wanting to read this for a while and finally got round to it last week… and it was just so brilliant. So weird. So good. Suffice to say, I gave it five stars on GoodReads.

Even before reading I loved the premise, what I knew of it, and as with The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson’s masterful opening paragraph drew me right in:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

It’s a pretty bold first paragraph. In many ways it sums up our narrator Mary Katherine, AKA Merricat, and gives you a palpable sense of dread mixed with curiosity.

I found Merricat to be a very sympathetic narrator. I have heard her referred to as an unreliable narrator, but I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. As you read more it quickly becomes clear that Merricat has some kind of psychological disorder, and just isn’t like everyone else. So she sees the world differently to the other characters, even her sister Constance; but that doesn’t necessarily make her an unreliable narrator. She describes events pretty much literally; the only ‘unreliable’ thing is when she says her cat is talking to her, and in the context that just sounds quite sweet. The cat, Jonas, is like another person to Merricat, and is obviously very loyal and attached to her. I liked their moments of closeness.

Now, the dead family. That’s quite important. At the time of events in the book it has been only six years since the family died, but without knowing that you’d think it was a lot longer. Merricat and Constance are very comfortable in their routine and rarely speak of their deceased relatives; when they do, it is usually because their senile (possibly brain-damaged) old uncle Julian has dedicated his life to remembering and documenting the lives of the family, and especially the day they died. He speaks almost exclusively about that day, and the family. Constance nods along and answers his questions, but Merricat stays out of it. They have a peaceful if slightly odd little life, despite being hated by the people in the village, who scorn Merricat when she goes into town to go food shopping.

The sisters are ostracised from the village, and treated as social pariahs. This is partly because their family, the Blackwoods, have always ‘kept to themselves’ and disliked mixing with the rest of the village; but it is mostly because Constance was accused of murdering the family and was even tried, but eventually acquitted. Now, she does not leave the house except to tend to her kitchen garden. Merricat only leaves to do the shopping, and clearly hates it. While only Constance could be described as actually agoraphobic, none of the family like leaving the house and land. I have read that Shirley Jackson was in ill health and possibly agoraphobic when she wrote the novel, and the sense of safety and isolation within the home is very vivid. The house protects the vulnerable sisters from the outside world, but it also imprisons them. When their cousin Charles comes to visit and disrupts their routines, you can see how desperately they need to maintain their life and order. When he interferes, everything goes wrong.

It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers, so I won’t go into any more of the plot. What I will say is that it is very much worth buying the new PMC edition as it has a fantastic afterword by Joyce Carol Oates, in which she analyses both story and characters. It made me think about the book in a lot more detail. She suggests that Merricat might have a form of paranoid schizophrenia, and also connects her and Constance’s behaviour to traditional stories of witches. Merricat certainly has a connection to nature, and she believes that by burying things in the land around the house, as well as nailing objects to trees, she can protect herself and her sister (plus there’s the cat). Having been immersed in the story it is almost jarring to hear Merricat given a clinical diagnosis – when you’re with her in the book, you can see that she is not ‘normal’, and that her behaviour can be destructive or malicious, but as I said she is essentially a sympathetic character, and you are on her side. It is really quite upsetting to read about the villagers’ hatred for the sisters, and the cruel way they are treated by Charles. They are so fragile that you just want them to be safe, and left alone. Joyce Carol Oates also points out that Merricat just could not survive in the outside world, and this is probably true. She needs the safety of their little world more than Constance, and she does whatever she can to protect it. In some ways Constance’s life is controlled by Merricat, who is much more willful and determined.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a gothic tale, but it is also a story about mental illness and the ways in which we cope with it – and the ways in which it is stigmatised and not understood by others. I felt desperately sad for Merricat and Constance and what they suffer. But they are able to find a lot of happiness in each other, and often talk about how happy they are. They have an almost symbiotic relationship, and rely on each other a lot, least of all emotionally and psychologically.

There is a lot more I could talk about here, but for now I’ll leave it at that. I would really recommend the Joyce Carol Oates afterword for some excellent discussion and analysis. I would also love to hear others’ views on the book – did you find Merricat a sympathetic and likeable character? What about Constance?

I have been wondering about what would happen after the end of the book. The sisters are still very young, so they have a potentially long life to live out together. What will become of them? Frankly I’m still thinking about them, and hoping they are safe and happy. Even the weird deserve that.

*

First published in the US in 1962. I read the 2015 Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Purchase from Foyles

Reading Mental Health: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

In my last post I mentioned that I had been away on holiday and therefore hadn’t blogged in a while, but promised to be back soon. But then I got food poisoning and was off grid practically the whole week. Bloody perfect. So this is a delayed ‘return’ to the blog. Finally! It’s been too long…

Some of my most recent reads have concerned mental health and mental health care, particularly The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor. That book focused on the end of the ‘asylum age’, a time when psychiatric care was moving away from institutionalising patients and instead beginning to emphasise community care and outpatient care. That was the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Susanna Kaysen experienced the asylum age when it was in full swing, in the late 1960s. She was an ‘unstable’ teenager who had an affair with her high school English teacher, and she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital with a suspected case of borderline personality disorder. You may have seen the excellent film adaptation of Girl, Interrupted with Winona Ryder. If you have you’ll know that Susanna wasn’t an extreme case, like many of the girls she met in hospital. She wasn’t obviously psychotic, or suicidal, and compared to the other girls she sometimes seems completely sane.

1994 Vintage paperback edition (image: penguinrandomhouse.com)
1994 Vintage paperback edition (image: penguinrandomhouse.com)

Susanna was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and the amazing charity Mind have a page on it here that adheres pretty much exactly to what Susanna describes in the book. I think many people will have experienced feelings/symptoms that are similar to BPD, but that doesn’t mean we all have it. It also means it can be difficult to diagnose and/or treat. After all, Susanna was 18 when she was amitted into the hospital, an age when we can act strangely and not be sure of ourselves. But she certainly was unwell, and her later clarity means that she is able to see this, and examine her experiences thoroughly in hindsight.

Susanna’s case papers are included sporadically throughout the text, grounding her experience in reality, and yet making it surreal at the same time – these documents are from another era, another world than our own. But they are fascinating, and give real insight into the American mental health system at the time. I thought this was an excellent touch, and was glad these old documents were included. I also loved the structure and pacing of the book. It is not entirely chronological, but this doesn’t matter. Each chapter is based around a theme or event in some way, and with this method Kaysen is able to cover all the ground I’m sure she intended to without getting bogged down in ‘this happened, and then this’. It is a portrait, a snapshot, an examination. It is an overview of what it felt like to be ‘interrupted’.

Alongside the story of her incarceration, Kaysen diverges off into relevant tangents that create context and background to her story, and, in one of my favourite chapters, explores the difference between ‘brain’ and ‘mind’. I found this fascinating and thought that it added depth and psychological context to the rest of the book. There are lots of succinct lines and paragraphs that I could quote and quote, which was something else I loved – unlike me, Kaysen doesn’t waffle. She gets to the point and makes it.

I would recommend Girl, Interrupted to anyone interested in the history of mental health and its care, and also for anyone who enjoyed the film, or who enjoys interesting and off-beat memoirs. That’s what I would call this book – an off-beat memoir. It isn’t miserable, or depressing, and it isn’t a detailed book exploring complex issues, like The Last Asylum.While we get an insight into the medical system through the case documents and Kaysen’s memories, this isn’t an examination of the use of ‘asylums’ or whatever the right word is. Kaysen does not seek to critique the system, not overtly at least, although of course we do make judgements as we learn about her experience and the experiences of some of her fellow patients (both positive and negative).

Really this is a personal story, one of its time and place, but one that is extremely relatable and human. I wish I had read it when I was a teenager, because Kaysen has some great life-lesson style philosophy that really struck a chord with me. I liked her as a person, as well as liking her book. Having read it, I think it would be interesting to re-watch the film and see how they adapted all the content and characters.

I would love to hear from anyone else who has read this book, or might want to. It is definitely worth it, and has taken its place among my favourites.

*

First published in 1993 by Turtle Bay Books in the US. I read the 1994 edition from Vintage.

BookTube: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor (first booktube review!)

Hi all, as I’m sure you know BookTube is a really big ‘thing’, and I follow a fair amount of booktubers, so I decided to give it a go! So here I go…

The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith

Interview with Tanya J. Peterson

As part of the blog tour for her novel Leave of Absence, author Tanya J. Peterson agreed to answer a few questions about her work, and her motivations for writing about mental health and raising awareness. You can also read my review of Leave of Absence here.

leave of absence blog tour1.  What was your inspiration for Leave of Absence? What made you want to write this story?

I had a very specific motivation for writing this novel. I want to correct the negative, and incorrect, stereotypes that exist about people who experience mental illness. Fiction can be a powerful vehicle for conveying basic truths, and I hope to use it to increase understanding of what mental illness is truly like. With correct knowledge and increased understanding comes empathy.

I care about this subject deeply because I have experience with mental illness both professionally and personally. I’m a Nationally Certified Counselor, and I’ve worked with people in different capacities. I experience mental illness personally, too, as I have bipolar I disorder as well as various difficulties with anxiety. I’ve seen people deal with stigma, and I’ve dealt with it myself.  I think that stigma exists not because people purposely want to judge others cruelly.  Instead, people have been exposed to incorrect information through mainstream media. If people can receive accurate information through stories and fictitious characters, I believe they will see mental illness differently. Thus, I wrote Leave of Absence.

2.  Do you feel that mental health and psychiatric issues have enough representation in modern literature, both fiction and non-fiction?

They definitely haven’t had enough of the right representation, that’s for sure. Mental illness has seen better treatment in non-fiction than in fiction. There are numerous fantastic informative texts, and there are moving memoirs that give the public a glimpse into the world of people experiencing mental illness. With fiction it’s a different story, though (pun intended!). So many movies, television shows, and novels seek only to entertain, and as such, they take full artistic license to weave tall tales that bring in big dollars. As a result, society has very inaccurate representations of mental illness, and these false depictions turn into the negative stereotypes that become stigma.

3.  What do you feel are the best ways to draw attention to these issues and destigmatise mental health problems?

There are numerous approaches to this, and that’s a good thing. The more that can be done in diverse ways, the more effective the message will be. For me, the best way is through stories.  Stories are about people. Stories have characters with whom people can connect. Decreasing stigma involves humanizing mental illness. What better way to do this than through stories?

4.  How vital was your experience as a counsellor when writing about mental health issues and those who treat them?

I’m grateful for this experience because it has given me a depth of understanding not only of the facts of the illnesses but about the people behind them. I was able to create an accurate, realistic portrayal of the mental illnesses in Leave of Absence, what they’re like for the people who experience them, what helpers sound like, and even what behavioral health hospitals are like.  It was very important for me to make this story accurate, and my background in counseling contributed to that.

5.  Now for some questions about writing – which writers do you admire? Who inspires you?

I enjoy writers who give depth and meaning to their stories through their characters. I read for character and theme much more than I do for plot. Saul Bellow, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison do this well, and they are definitely inspiring to me. I’m certainly not claiming to be on their level!

6.  What is your writing process like? Do you work to music, at home, on a computer? Do you share notes and drafts with anyone?

I’m a writer of the early-morning variety. I wake up around 5:00 each morning (give or take a little), make a cup of tea, and settle down in front of my computer. On beautiful summer mornings, I take my laptop out on my deck and enjoy the morning air. I typically prefer my writing space to be quiet, but if I do have music playing it’s something classical in the background. I research, brainstorm, add little notes to the various sections of my novel’s binder. I re-read what I’ve written, and I make changes. Then, with my sketch of the current chapter in mind, I settle into the actual writing.

I typically don’t share notes and drafts, but I will do so on occasion. I’ve had consultations to help improve my writing ability. And of course I have the work edited, and I make revisions. So yes, I do seek input, but I don’t belong to groups because I’m not much of a social writer.

7.  How long did it take you to write Leave of Absence? It’s an emotional story so was it difficult to write at times?

Writing is the one activity I do where I can truly experience flow, that state of being in which one is completely mindful and in the moment. As such, the writing proceeds fairly quickly.  I wrote Leave of Absence in approximately four months. I often lose myself in the writing and almost take on the experiences of the characters. This helps the flow, I think, and it does make it emotional which I think is a good thing. If I’m connected to my characters, hopefully I can write in a way that helps others connect, too.

8.  Lastly, do you have any plans for another novel? Your first was a YA novel so would you revisit that readership again or stay with adult fiction?

I’m working on a new novel now, actually. Like Leave of Absence, it is adult contemporary fiction and of course is about mental illness. It’s drastically different from Leave of Absence, of course. I anticipate that all of my novels will be similar but different. They’ll all address mental health issues but will focus on different topics and will be written in different ways (for example, this new one uses first person point of view rather than close third person). I have no plans to return to YA. I simply don’t consider myself to be a strong YA author. I admire those who can do it, but I’m not one of them.

Lizzi, thank you so much for hosting me on These Little Words as part of my virtual book tour!  I so appreciate both your review of Leave of Absence and this interview with you. It’s nice to have a chance to spread the word about a novel I care about! Your insights and your questions have been fantastic. Thanks, too, to all of your readers! I appreciate everyone taking the time to learn about Leave of Absence and about me, too!

Tanya J. Peterson
Tanya J. Peterson

Published by Inkwater Press in April 2013.

Many thanks to Tanya for taking the time to answer these questions, and to her publishers for asking me to participate in this blog tour.

Leave of Absence by Tanya J. Peterson

This review is part of the blog tour for Tanya J. Peterson’s new novel Leave of Absence, published in April this year by Inkwater Press.

leave of absence blog tour

When Leave of Absence was offered to me by Inkwater Press,  it immediately appealed to me because of the subject matter. Author Tanya J. Peterson is a qualified counsellor and chose mental health, her area of expertise, as the basis for her first adult novel. Mental health is a hugely important issue that is often ignored, stigmatised, or not taken seriously, despite affecting most people at some point in their lives.

2013 paperback cover. Image: goodreads.com
2013 paperback cover. Image: goodreads.com

Central characters Oliver and Penelope are coping with depressive grief and schizophrenia respectively, and they meet when they are both admitted to the same psychiatric health centre. The novel opens with Oliver’s failed suicide attempt, as he falls from a ledge to a landing pad, taking a policeman with him. As he is transported to the centre and introduced to his new home, Peterson’s narrative follows him closely and does its best to open up his internal experience to the reader, while demonstrating the sympathy and efforts of the police and psychiatric staff trying to help him. This works most of the time, and Oliver seems suitably tired of life; the psychiatric staff however often come across as patronising and seem to treat Oliver like a child. Whether this in intentional or not I’m not quite sure.

More than anything the fear of uncertainty is palpable throughout Leave of Absence. Oliver has lost his wife and child, and blames himseelf for their deaths – when the novel opens he has been homeless for several months and is determined to give up. Being taken to the centre forces him to confront his existence and the reader stays close by him as he tackles trying to trust the staff and his fear not only of the other patients and their unpredictable behaviour, but also what will happen to him.

Oliver’s friendship with Penelope changes everything for both of them, and it is wonderful to see their mental health develop and improve. Peterson’s experience as a counsellor no doubt informed her knowledge of how supportive relationships can make a huge difference to people with mental health problems. Medical and psychiatric staff are the ones that make the push in this world, and force the patients to deal with their issues; but they have limited empathy and understanding. Fellow patients help Oliver to understand his own problems.

Throughout the novel Oliver has several flashbacks to his life with his wife and son. There is a careful poignancy to these, but at times they feel a little heavy handed and too obvious. Similarly at times descriptions of emotions, and particularly emotional speech, were a little clunky; but despite this I could see what Peterson was trying to communicate and there was real beauty hidden behind any issues with phrasing.

Tanya J. Peterson. Image: hookofabook.wordpress.com
Tanya J. Peterson. Image: hookofabook.wordpress.com

I particularly liked Peterson’s sympathetic treatment of her troubled characters. She obviously feels for them and takes care to describe how hard it is for Oliver and Penelope to communicate how they feel and what they want. Both of them are lost and trying to work out how to carry out their lives in their new realities; they are forced to work with others and make themselves understood.

Oliver rapidly tossed the ball back and forth from hand to hand. He felt weird, like there was this great pressure inside of him making everything feel like it would explode. He sighed as he searched for words to communicate with Matt. When he tried to put words to what he was experiencing, it sounded ridiculous. But it didn’t feel ridiculous.

For these characters the difference between their inner and outer worlds is far greater than those trying to help them, and this makes it hard for them to relate to each other. But with Peterson’s sympathy and obvious skill as a counsellor, the characters are able to make progress.

While some extra editing could have sharpened certain moments in the writing, this is an accomplished novel and helps draw attention the difficulties and complicated challenges facing both those suffering from mental illness and those treating them.

*

Published in April 2013 by Inkwater Press. My copy was kindly sent to me by the publisher for review.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

2006 paperback cover. Image: headline.co.uk
2006 paperback cover. Image: headline.co.uk

After last week’s Maggie-fest, I went home, picked up my copy of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and read it in two days. It’s not very long, and my copy has quite wide set print, but I read it so quickly mostly because it was compulsive. It is, simply, an amazing book. Examined once the book is finished, the story is actually quite complicated and ‘sweeping’, but it is written quite simply and sensitively, taking in great emotions and drama but never – not once – being melodramatic or sensationalist.

The narrative I found to be almost dream-like at times, as it flits effortlessly between Esme in the 1930s, Iris in the mid 2000s, and Kitty’s stream-of-consciousness narrative from within her Alzheimer’s-riddled mind (also in mid 2000s). O’Farrell’s choice to give Kitty Alzheimer’s in her old age is the perfect device to demonstrate the importance of memory and perception within the wider story, as well as the ways in which we interpret our present lives.

Esme is a character so beautifully drawn that she could almost be analysed as if she were a real person. We see her in childhood, and in old age, with her fateful adolescence in between. Her experiences of early life in India – as well as the typhoid outbreak and the death of her ayah – reminded me very much of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden (one of my all-time favourites). Though Mary is completely abandoned and Esme remains with her family, both are taken away to a completely different life without being given a choice, and are expected to adapt to a new world that they do not understand at all. Esme’s ‘problem’ is that she is stubborn, independent, and defiant. She refuses to be bored, and this refusal dictates her entire life.

Mental health and societal perceptions of it are crucial to this story. In 1930s Edinburgh, a woman could be locked away for being deemed ‘difficult’ by male relatives, and left to languish in a psychiatric hospital. But it is not just these thankfully now outdated views that are examined. In the modern day narrative of Iris and the elderly Esme, mental health still has its stigmas. Iris’ stepbrother Alex cannot believe that she is taking on this ‘mad old woman’ who is apparently her great aunt. There is a mistrust of ‘madness’ and a fear of it, but also, it seems to me, a lack of understanding. Alex represents the view that it is best left alone.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is one of those deceptively simple books that stays with you long afterwards. It is a book that Maggie O’Farrell fans tend to really love, and I am not at all surprised. Brava, Maggie, brava.

*

Published in 2006 by Headline.