Book covers: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, Father Melancholy's Daughter by Gail Godwin, Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel, Where the Moon Isn't by Nathan Filer, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon

6 Degrees of Separation: Mental Health Edition

It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.

This month starts with a book by an Australian author shortlisted for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction – Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason.

I got a late start on reading Sorrow and Bliss and have not yet finished it, but so far I’m liking it. The novel deals with one of my particular interests, the presentation of mental illness in fiction. I’m therefore going with a thematic presentation for this month’s 6 Degrees. 

The first five novels in this list all present mental illness in a compassionate and informative way. The sixth degree novel, by contrast, illustrates a callous and cavalier depiction of mental illness and the related societal problem of homelessness. I don’t usually focus on negative reviews (which is probably why I didn’t write a review of this novel), but I include it here because I find the contrast enlightening.

first degree

A note at the end of Sorrow and Bliss declares “The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication, and doctors’ advice is wholly fictional.” However, the protagonist, Martha, tells us, “at intervals throughout my twenties and most of my thirties, I was depressed, mildly, moderately, severely, for a week, two weeks, half a year, all of one” (p. 58).

Another novel that includes a character who experiences depression is Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin (scroll down to the second entry on the page). Although I read this novel, published in 1991, way back in 1993, I still occasionally think about its compassionate development of the main character’s father and his mental health.

second degree

The note at the end of Sorrow and Bliss suggests that author Meg Mason intends that her fictional development of Martha is not limited to Martha’s mental state. Stephanie Wrobel takes a similar approach to characters’ mental health in Darling Rose Gold. Both main characters, Rose Gold Watts and her mother Patty Watts, have significant mental problems that impact their actions. But Wrobel doesn’t take the easy way out of labeling each character with a mental health description to carry the characterization. Instead, she avoids the labels and shows us each character’s backstory in a way that allows us to understand how both became the women they are. 

third degree

In Where the Moon Isn’t (the U.S. title; published in the U.K. as The Shock of the Fall) Nathan Filer introduces readers to a character with schizophrenia, but, like Stephanie Wrobel, he doesn’t rely on the illness label to carry the characterization. Like Gail Godwin in Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Filer creates a richly complex, individualized character. I read Where the Moon Isn’t in 2014, and, as with Godwin’s novel, it has remained with me over the intervening years.

fourth degree

Next we come to The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell:

In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage-clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend’s attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital—where she has been locked away for more than sixty-one years.

—Goodreads

Cauldstone Hospital is an old psychiatric institution that is being closed down. Over the course of the novel, told through three points of view, we learn how Esme Lennox got to Cauldstone and why she has been shut away there for all these years. 

fifth degree

Autism is a mental condition that is often talked about but still not well understood. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time shows us how one young man with autism experiences the world. Author Mark Haddon’s great achievement in this novel is that he shows us a character who happens to be autistic rather than a character primarily constrained by his autism.

sixth degree

My final entry is At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon, which I dislike for two reasons. First, it refers to an encampment of homeless people, yet the encampment is so far out of town that most of the well-situated residents of Mitford don’t even know that it exists. How convenient it must be to live in a town where the homeless people stay in their place and avoid intruding on the daily lives of the town’s residents. Second, a minor character, one of Mitford’s residents, is a schizophrenic woman described as charmingly eccentric. I hate it when a writer tosses off a detail like that to give a quaint air to a patently unrealistic fictional place. 

The casual, off-hand, humorous way Karon uses such details in this book contrasts deeply with the serious and compassionate efforts of the authors of the previous novels on this list. Mental health issues are not cute, funny, or charming, and they are significant issues in today’s world. Fiction can increase our knowledge about such issues and help us understand and help rather than stigmatize people who struggle with them.

© 2022 by Mary Daniels Brown

7 thoughts on “6 Degrees of Separation: Mental Health Edition”

  1. I’ve read – and enjoyed the O’Farrell and the Haddon, but the rest of your choices sound interesting too (maybe not the Karon!), and I see the Wrobel is available in our library. Off to hunt it down soon!

    1. Mary Daniels Brown

      I hope you’ll like Darling Rose Gold when you get around to it, Margaret. It’s quite well written. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. What an interesting chain, Mary. The only one I’ve read is Mark Haddon’s book. I like the sound of the Maggie O’Farrell and Stephanie Wrobel titles.

    1. Mary Daniels Brown

      Thanks, Jan. I found the O’Farrell novel especially interesting because it shows a bit about how mental illness was handled in the past.

  3. Great chain!
    I have only read your 5th degree, which I enjoyed a lot.
    I recently read another powerful thriller with mental illness, The House of Needless Street, by Catriona Ward

  4. Marianne Maurer

    What an interesting way to create your chain, Mary. Since I hadn’t read the first book, I concentrated on the titles but this one is fantastic. And I even read one of them, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Great novel.

    Thanks for visiting my Six Degrees of Separation which ended with The Birds Have Also Gone by Yaşar Kemal

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