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As I described in a recent post about the novel “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti”, the Wellcome Book Prize is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and I decided to explore this year's shortlist a bit more. One of the judges of this year's award is Elif Shafak and one of the shortlisted books is Ottessa Moshfegh's “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”. While I'm naturally drawn to reading more fiction than nonfiction, this award encompasses both kinds of writing so it's a good chance for me to read a nonfiction book I probably wouldn't have got to otherwise. The prize centres around new books that engage with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. Arnold Thomas Fanning's “Mind on Fire” recounts his lifelong struggle with mental health issues. He vividly describes the unwieldy chaos of manic episodes where extreme feelings and fantasies lead him to take drastic action as he careens through cities and airports shocking or outright terrifying people along the way. It's powerful how he conveys that to his manic mind he's following a logical course of action, but of course on the outside his actions are insensible. He also discloses the sensations of debilitating depression when he sometimes physically can't move and his thoughts revolve constantly around suicide. He eloquently expresses how all-consuming these states are and that “Within it there is no without it.” This illness not only wreaks havoc on his own health, but severely impinges upon the lives of his family and friends as well. Fanning powerfully documents his heartrending, difficult journey. 

One of the biggest difficulties in understanding manifestations of mania and depression is how these conditions can exist both as a mental health issue and normal human emotions. It's common for people who suffer from severe cases of this to not have it taken as a medical condition. Instead they are encouraged to buck up and smile instead of frowning as Fanning is encouraged to do by an acquaintance at one point. Fanning concedes that feelings may arise that “may be related to my bipolar disorder, but they are also common human experiences that I share with others. At times I am happy; at times I am sad and I suffer. I have good times, and not so good times. This is life, not illness.” The culmination of his journey marks a point he reaches where he's able to live a stable and productive life, but the extremity of his emotions in this period are very distinct from periods where he was unwell and unable to function. He cites the elements needed for recovery and wellness as being “therapy, medication, exercise, meaningful work (creative, as well as occupational) and a loving relationship and relationships with friends and family.” However, it's extremely difficult to achieve all of these things at once when resources such as money, health care or employment aren't available or support from friends or family isn't available. This combined with a stigma surrounding mental health issues and Fanning's own overwhelming feelings of self-defeat make his path to recovery a long and difficult one.

The book also meaningfully describes how recovery is never a state which will be absolute or constant. There are periods where he seems to have stabilised but due to changes in medication, pitfalls in his creative endeavours in playwriting and screenwriting career or his employment status and/or difficulties in his relationships or environment can send him spiralling into extreme episodes again. His story shows how the fear of relapse can add more anxiety to his state of being. Equally there can be a crushing sense of guilt surrounding the justified wariness from the people closest to him who've been negatively impacted by his breakdowns. Fanning's memoir poignantly conveys all these things and his overall journey gives a moving personal take on issues surrounding mental health. However, there were sections which lingered on details to do with his childhood, certain relationships or creative aspirations which detracted from the momentum of his tale and the impact of his message. I appreciate how he wanted to fully flesh out his life, but the focus at times strayed from the main focus of the issues involved. Nevertheless, I was touched by the honesty of his story and enlightened by the long winding journey of his struggles.

Any tale that describes an American’s permanent move to the UK or Ireland will immediately grab my attention because of my connection to this experience. In Molly McCloskey’s novel “When Light is Like Water” Alice travels to Ireland to live and work there while she figures out what to do with her life. She ends up falling in love and setting there. It’s so difficult to resist the charms of Irish men! However, the majority of the novel relates an account of the dissolution of her marriage through an affair and her present life sorting through her emotionally-broken past. In doing so, McCloskey creates a powerful account of the complexities of Alice’s wayward love life and the difficult grief-laden process of moving forward when she’s lost the people who are closest to her.

The story of this novel is relatively simple, but the psychologically-insightful and evocative writing is what make this tale come vibrantly to life. McCloskey is highly attuned to relationships in communities, social groups and in romantic partnerships. She observes how "There is nothing like the presence of an outsider to heighten one's enjoyment of being an insider." This statement could readily be applied to a foreigner who enters a community or someone new that’s introduced to a circle of friends. It shows how our connections with others are reinforced by a kind of smug familiarity when an unknown entity enters the ring.

The primary focus is Alice’s affair with a man named Darragh and the emotional repercussions this causes on all sides. It’s presented as if this romantic betrayal was almost inevitable but the impact upon Alice and the way she processes it comes to her as a surprise: "I had always imagined adultery would feel shadowy and whispered, a world in black and white, all cobblestones and dripping eaves, but what it felt like was being always on the run, everything breathless and fractured and a little ridiculous." Rather than being caught up in the sensationalism of it, Alice is disarmed by how it’s exhausting and embarrassing having an affair. It tinges her retrospective account of her relationships with these two men with a special kind of melancholy as if this is an example of the inevitable solitary nature of life.

The author makes sharp observations about the way we are in some ways strangers within our own relationships. When describing her connection to her husband she states "there are currents that operate independently of us and of which we seem remarkably ignorant." When you’re part of a couple it so often feels like there is an energy to it which both participants are entirely unaware of as over time it moves between states of psychological/physical/sexual closeness and distance. Equally, the novel makes astute observations about the strangeness of encountering someone we once had a strong connection with: "Why is it that what we so often find on meeting someone we’ve loved seems not a residue or an after-image but a feeling more like foolishness?"

When reading this book I was strongly reminded of Anne Enright’s masterful novel “The Forgotten Waltz” which recounts a woman’s romance with a married man. Not only does Enright also dissect the moment by moment swings of emotion which accompany acts of infidelity, but she also shows how the Irish nation transforms in the background of her story. McCloskey does something similar as Alice witnesses the country change over a few decades. She observes how “Ireland at the end of the eighties often resembled was a place celebrating, insistently, its own collapse, and there was a certain dignity in that, a triumph even." and carries on through the early 2010s when the country experienced its ill-fated property boom. But McCloskey also casts her gaze further afield as Alice’s journalism takes her to Africa and her observations of society there make a sharp contrast to her impressions of Ireland.

“When Light is Like Water” is a deftly told story of painful heartache told as if looking through soiled panes of glass.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMolly McCloskey