Thanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for the ARC of this book.
Wow is this book depressing! Admittedly, it ends with ‘a glimmer of hope’, as the final section is titled; but, as they say on the Kermode and Mayo film review, “there’s a whole lot of Shawshank to get through before the redemption”.
I knew nothing about Sarah Rayner’s books before starting this one; I had assumed from the covers that they would be somewhat fluffy chick-lit featuring mature women. I could not have been more off the mark. This book is in fact a sympathetic and insightful examination of depression and mental illness, the different ways in which ordinary people experience these and the ways in which they can be treated.
The book follows the stories of three people:
- Abby, the mother of a severely autistic boy, who is going through a divorce while still living with her husband, is about to lose her house and receives very little support caring for her very demanding son.
- Karen, a widow whose husband died a couple of years before the novel is set and whose father is in the late stages of dementia.
- Michael, a florist whose business is going under.
The three main protagonists are dealing with long-term, seemingly insurmountable real-life problems which throughout the first section of the book get worse and worse until they finally all crack and end up in a private psychiatric clinic together.
I liked that in the early part of the book, before the characters meet, the sections following each character were kept short so that we did not need to spend too long dwelling in the misery of each character and also because I wasn’t as interested in the sections featuring Michael. I thought the women’s problems revolving around their personal lives were more interesting than Michael’s business and financial woes.
I didn’t really like Michael; he was aggressive whereas the women were more worn down by life. I felt like the bad things which happened to him were more of his own making due to his lack of financial responsibility, whereas Abby and Karen’s problems were out of their control. Maybe, this is a reflection of the fact that as a society we hold men to higher standards regarding mental health, or maybe he just was not as sympathetic and relatable a character.
I felt that it took a bit long to get to the point in the book where the three characters’ stories inter-linked and I found the story much more compelling once I got into the middle section set in the psychiatric clinic. It was interesting to read about the different techniques the therapists use to treat depression.
If I had not chosen to review this book via NetGalley, I probably would have stopped reading on the first page when I realised it was written in the present tense. I detest this recent fashion, more and more books are being written in the present tense. Sometimes it works, such as in The Hunger Games – where there is severe peril and a driving plot, but most of the time the present tense is just really jarring and unnecessary. I assume this book is written in the present tense because in the prologue there is a flash forward indicating that someone from the group therapy sessions dies and Rayner wanted to avoid any foreshadowing or hints through hindsight which might have occurred by writing in the past tense, but I don’t think it is necessary. I guessed very early on which character would die and I was correct; I was not at all fooled by the fake-out suggesting Michael has died, so I don’t think this added any tension to the story.
This book covers an interesting topic; depression is probably a bit overlooked in fiction. Rayner uses the books as a platform to make important observations about the effects of budget cuts on public healthcare facilities and patients, and how mental illness can affect all sorts of normal people at any time of their life. She does a very good job of making mental illness an approachable subject. However, I personally found the subject matter and the unrelentingly realism just too depressing and, although there was a light at the end of the tunnel, it just wasn’t the most enjoyable type of book to read in one’s spare time. Having said that, I think it might help someone suffering with depression to read this book as it contains very relatable characters going through a similar experience.