Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Last Asylum: Barbara Taylor

This was a remarkable memoir of historian Barbara Taylor. Part memoir, part historical treatise on psychiatric care and services in Britain, it was an extremely interesting insight into one person's very difficult and prolonged experience of psychiatric illness and the various services and treatment approaches she came into contact with, either by choice or otherwise.
While her personal history and illness was tough reading at times, it is an extremely honest and open account, even allowing us into her psychoanalytic sessions with V,, excerpts of whose dialogue is interspersed through the memoir. This was a very clever way of providing us with her background and exposing us to her unrelenting and frightening unconscious, but also showing us how the psychotherapeutic process works, building a relationship of trust so that the unconscious can be explored in a safe space. The challenge of this work is huge, and for the author, extra support was required, and so she was committed to Friern, an ancient asylum, which closed down some years later. Here we learn about life in such an asylum (she had three stints of varying lengths in total in Friern), and the various hardships but also friendships from such an institution.
I found these accounts most interesting and compelling reading. The humanity at the heart of this memoir was remarkable, as well as the honesty and courage in allowing us in to such dark and secret places, though which pertain to us all.
What I found harder to read were the historical descriptions of the various asylums and their closures, and the scholarly accounts of the community care model that took their place. Though I understood why this was important, I was more interested in the author herself, her particular experience which I could relate to more easily than the wider objective lens used to comment on current practice.
However, in all it was a fascinating account of this authors journey through the darkness, and the various supports that helped her through to be able to manage the darkness and support herself to live a fulfilled and meaningful life. Her conclusion was simple but strong: relationship is central to recovery. While more modern systems emphasize independent decision-making and self-management, this is often not what people in crisis need. Her own experience is testament to this, and this book questions the consequences of the closures of asylums, which is a very pertinent consideration for our times.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent

I read this book on the strength of a recommendation by Marie, my sister-in-law, who praised it highly and lent it me, with an eager "Read it!" I'm always compelled by a recommendation, and though historical fiction is not usually my thing, I decided to go for it.
I can't say I was sold straight away on the story. But I did persevere over the first chapter or two and found myself really enjoying it and engaging with the plot and narrative about a third of the way in.
The story is based on a true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a servant woman accused of killing two men, her employer and lover Natan Ketilsson and his guest, Petur Jonsson. Agnes was the last woman in Iceland to be executed (1830), and was often defiled as a witch or a cursed figure in popular lore. This story, told through records, letters and narratives from different perspectives, occurs in the months preceding her execution, when Agnes is put up in the farmstead of Jon Jonsson, as a servant and maid to his family: steely wife Margret and daughters Lauga and Steina, and where she would meet often with a priest for counsel. This custom was common for convicts facing execution. During these months, in which the changing seasons of Iceland is so beautifully observed, we come to learn of Agnes'very difficult past, through her sessions with Toti, her priest and confidante, but also with her position in the family, which at times really tests the strength of her character. We learn through her various chores and wise observations just how capable she is. The family, though unwelcoming and hostile grow to depend on her. Margret, determined from the outset to keep her in her place, softens her attitude towards the end, and even allows a few moments of compassion or shared understanding with Agnes, moments hinging on intimacy. These moments, for me, were the most touching in the book. This, and Kent's wonderful use of imagery to describe the harsh and bleak beauty of the Icelandic landscape, were the high points of the book.
At times, I feel, the switching voices of the narratives, unsettled the movement and the sense of direction of the story. The facts of the case were complex enough, and I think the use of too many narrative voices to tell the story took from the natural flow of the story.
That said, I did really enjoy the book and I feel I learned a lot about Icelandic customs, and the language. I had to 'google' one word that was so often used: 'badstofa', which I learned is the traditional sleeping quarters in a farmstead, often heated like a sauna...Nice...!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Le Pigeon

This little book was a real gem. The story takes place over one day in the life of Jonathan, a man in his fifties, who, we are told in the opening lines, expects nothing further to happen in his life but death, one day. He liked predictability, he liked his safe existence, he liked to know where he stood in life. Standing, in fact, is what he spent his life doing. As a security guard in a bank, his function was to stand on the entrance steps, open the gate for the manager at the same time each day, and close it on his departure. This he did, day in, day out. Then one day, a pigeon arrives.

From this encounter, a series of misfortunes ensue. Jonathan has to deal with these, and moreover the internal chaos they create. We see his incapacity to deal with any uncertainty. His life is governed by fear, which has caused him to cocoon himself so. During the events of the day, we see how his mind works, we feel his terror and his fatalistic thinking, which grows more and more during the day. By the end of the story, he has had an epiphany. We are led to believe that a change has occurred. But very cleverly, the ending is ambiguous.

I loved this book. I could relate to Jonathan on many levels. From the outset, I sensed his impending breakdown. Cutting himself off from the world through such exacting routine diminishes his life. Rather than protecting him from danger, it makes him ever more anxious. Trusting people is not always easy; yet we need people. There is an expectation that life should expand as one grows. But often, we get stuck, or struck by fear. I often marvel at people who seem so naturally spontaneous, who say 'yes' to life. However the more I reflect on this, the more I wonder if the spontaneous instinct paradoxically grows in a person, by practising ever-increasing acts of courage, by challenging oneself out of ones comfort-zone. I read this book in French, a New-Year's resolution to persist with learning French. Ironically, though easy to read and understand, it presented me with another and a greater challenge: to say 'yes' to life; to trust people and the process of the Universe, that I might slowly allow the colours through and play like a child.