This was one of the books I bought from the Book Sale at the Hull Central Library. I got it at a bargain at £1 – especially since I later found it for sale at W.H Smith at around £8. Definitely couldn’t grumble at that!
I do love finding and reading books by independent publishers. They prove to me time and time again that the indies can publish just as well as the Big Five and bigger companies.
So, today’s review is about this book:
Mental illness is extremely topical – now more than ever, as society tries to find more effective ways to increase awareness and understanding for those who suffer. It’s for this reason that this book caught my eye. It looked to address an important subject but in a light-hearted and comical matter, which made it more appealing. Not to say that I’m not open to reading more serious books on the matter, but that was part of why I was interested in buying the book.
Rufus Waters has had enough of being labelled a loon. Enough of medication and therapy. Enough of the pitying looks and nervous changes of subject. Enough of being stood up and turned down. Enough, in short, of being a nutter.
‘I choose sanity,’ he informs his erstwhile girlfriend, bi-polar Kate. Rufus shrugs off Kate’s misgivings and forges ahead with his plans for the New Improved Rufus Waters. He bins his medication, sacks his glamorous psychiatrist, and quickly acquires both job and new girlfriend in a matter of days.
This promising start is, however, a false dawn. Soon his re-invented self, in his freshly-picked sane world, is falling apart and it takes the wisdom of a drug-addled Latin professor to bring some sense into his world once more.
The strongest attribute of this novel is its wonderful array of interesting and flawed characters. Because, let’s face it, they’re what keep life interesting. Rufus, the main character, is from a middle-class, well-off family, and is a brilliant representation of how mental illness can befall anyone in any circumstance, not just those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. When he first meets his future girlfriend Kate, a girl who comes from a more modest working-class family, he has to fight hard against her stereotypes. They meet at a support group and she gives him a hard time for being there.
‘Depression my arse. What have you ever had to be depressed about? He’s had everything, all his life. Posh school, posh house, shed loads of money. Skiing every year, shouldn’t bloody wonder. Doesn’t even have to get a job.’
Rufus found his voice. ‘Excuse me for not coming from a sink estate and being the product of a lesbian mother and an alcoholic father,’ he said. ‘I suppose you’d prefer that.’
‘It’d make more bloody sense.’
Rufus raised his eyebrows with some effort. ‘Well, well, who’d have thought it. Nutters can be bigots too…I thought, and this is must prove how mad I am, that a person who knew what it was like to be a nutter from personal experience might possibly have the teeniest bit of insight into what it was like for someone else. But no, how wrong I was. Everywhere I go it’s the same. Priveleged plus posh, plus depressed, equals whingeing failure. Dragged up in a high rise by parents with a combined IQ of room temperature, plus packs of feral children to play with, plus any fucking psychosis you like, equals poor unfortunate deserving of our sympathy. Now I know what they mean by the NHS being a postcode lottery.’
This works so effectively at demonstrating the attitude of many people today. This scene is a microcosm of what happens in society, and what genuinely needs to stop if people are to get the help they need.
Rufus’ friend Teach is another example of this. Once a well-respected and top professor in his field, with a good reputation and strong intellect, Teach has succumbed to the pressures of society and spiralled into pit a of hopelessness, homelessness, drug abuse and depression. Despite this, he continues to talk, and think, like the professor he once was. He talks with an intellectual flair and formality, but his subject matter is far removed, and he often quotes Latin and poetry incorrectly, as though he’s a slightly broken and off-kilter version of his former self. This makes him even more charming and loveable. The contrast between his filthy appearance and his speech is very funny yet very sad all at the same time.
‘In point of fact, I have indeed been aboard that conveyance of the sober and the clean. Naturally, I see the benefits of a brief period of abstaining from recreational drugs and alcohol. I stand before you evidence of the efficacy of that system. However, I am with Monsieur Descartes on this one. Cogito ergo sum – which loosely translates as “I drink, therefore I am.”‘
P.J Davy balances the humour in the book with a stark and sobering depiction of the realities of mental illness. In this way, the author doesn’t cheapen or trivialise the subject matter. Counterbalancing the kind of humour that features in the above quotation, comes brilliantly written passages such as this:
He turned to lean over the rail, the flaking paint on the rusting ironwork gritty beneath his palms. He gazed down at the angry water below. Deep, fast, deadly water. His hands tightened on the rail, his grip whitening his knuckles, his jaw set, his breath held. Then, suddenly, the fight went out of him. As if a switch had been thrown. A plug pulled. He felt such a draining of energy, such a lack of power that his legs could barely support him. He staggered back off the bridge as if under a weight so tremendous it might press him into the ground. He might lie there, suffocating beneath it, too spent, too flimsy, too insubstantial to move.
The writing is therefore honest but makes mental illness more accessible, which is definitely no mean feat.
The third protagonist in the novel, Rufus’ ex-girlfriend Kate, suffers with bi-polar disorder. She has a beautiful singing voice and such a strong passion for the choir in which she performs. When she isn’t feeling low, her zest and energy and enthusiasm for life shines through. The real tragedy with Kate is that often her medication dulls this, and often affects her performance in the choir. She finds herself in a constant battle between staving off the depression which compromises her classical music career and embracing her talents while risking real mental decline.
What is wonderful about Kate is that despite her inner demons, she always remains loyal to her friends and is never afraid to give her opinions to them straight. She wants what’s best for them and often she recognises that this involves tough love and hard truths. But ultimately it comes from love and wishing to the right thing. She understands the limitations that people like her and Rufus face.
The only thing I will say that I wasn’t too impressed with in the case of Kate’s character was the overuse of the word ‘chuffing.’ Kate is originally from Pontefract and so uses this expression a fair bit. Now I live just outside of Pontefract and so have probably come across this expression before. But in this book, whenever Kate is prominent in a particular chapter, the word ‘chuffing’ features up to and probably sometimes more than four times per page. I know different dialects feature different words but I’m just not convinced that, no matter where you’re from, anyone actually uses a regional word so often. It’s almost constant. It even appears mid-way through a particularly energetic sex scene. By the end of it I think I developed a physical tick whenever I read the word. If I never read or hear that word again, I’ll be a very happy woman!
Rufus, Kate and Teach are examples of how many people with mental illness struggle and fight the often doomed battle against their demons by themselves. The stigma attached to their problems and issues puts pressure on them to deal with things alone and ‘pull themselves together’. Kate faces discrimination and bullying at the hands of her peers who see her as a nutter and crazy rather than simply a talented girl who struggles with bi-polar disorder. Rufus faces adversity even from his own mother, who fails to understand his issues and sees him as a failure. Teach’s character, among many others in the book, provides the reader with an insight into what can derail a person’s life, often through no fault of their own.
This book is an entertaining eye-opener and an enjoyable read. The book industry needs more of this kind of book. Thank you to independent publisher Snowbooks and P.J Davy for tackling such a subject so bravely and successfully.