In Australia and many other countries around the world, there’s a push to de-stigmatise mental illness. I think we’ve made a lot of progress but am aware there’s still a long way to go.
Amy Hatvany’s latest novel, Outside the Lines, provides a beautiful insight into mental illness – both from the perspective of the person struggling with the disease and those around them.
Eden West’s love of cooking came from her father. When she was young they’d spend time in the kitchen coming up with creations which encouraged Eden to trust her own culinary instincts. She also started to believe – and hope – that food could cure all ills.
Eden idolised her father and loved to hear the story of how her parents – her conservative mother Lydia and eccentric (and artistic) father David – met.
Refusing to take medicine because it makes him foggy, David is in and out of hospital until a suicide attempt changes everything.
Eden’s furious with her father for abandoning her and just as angry with her mother who she believes didn’t try hard enough, and who remarried soon after David’s departure.
Eden gets on with her life but is plagued by her father’s desertion and – two decades later – she decides to find the father she lost so long ago.
The last anyone heard of her father he’d been homeless and Eden starts visiting local shelters. Her search leads her to a new shelter and its director Jack, who rubs Eden the wrong way (and eventually – as it happens – in a good way!) and convinces her to volunteer there on a regular basis in exchange for helping with her search.
It’s hard to talk much more about the novel without giving too much away. But, for me there were some major themes.
Firstly the novel (obviously) focuses on mental illness. We spend some time in David’s head so partially understand his demons and what he’s going through.
It also touches on social norms. The novel challenges our beliefs and assumptions about how one should act or how one should want to live. David – and others – are quite happy in their state of homelessness. They get by as best they can and who are we to say that’s not okay?
And finally (and related), the novel says something about our need to change others into who WE want / need them to be.
In Eden’s situation, she feels she needs to ‘save’ her father from the life he’s living. On a lesser scale many people want to ‘change’ their spouse, or friends or children – their look, their behaviour, or their beliefs. They want them to be something they’re not. In some cases ‘change’ may be apt, but in others…. well…. We all know the adage about change being almost impossible if someone doesn’t actually WANT to change.
I was perhaps a little disappointed with the ending of this book – it was a little too neat, but never fear… it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies. Fortunately Hatvany didn’t go down the cliched route and some of the latter scenes were very poignant.
Although too-good-to-be-true Jack grated a bit, the other characters – Eden, David and Lydia (and Eden’s brother and her friend to a lesser extent) brought substance to the narrative and and insight into mental illness and homelessness.
Outside the Lines is a lovely novel and very much worth a read. Those living with mental illness – themselves or via their loved ones – will find this novel very moving and (hopefully) not too confronting.
Outside the Lines by Amy Hatvany is due to be published in Australia by Allen & Unwin in January 2015.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.