Sunday 30 March 2014

REVIEW: A Note of Madness, by Tabitha Suzuma (4.5*)

(The Bodley Head, 2006)

"He was humming along to the radio, making coffee, kicking Harry's washing out of the way.  Everything seemed so normal - he seemed so normal.  If anyone came in right now they wouldn't suspect anything was wrong.  Yet his mind seemed to be fragmenting, like a mirror spiderwebbing with cracks.  He felt as if he were at some kind of junction; what he did now could have huge repercussions - should he try to hold on or just let himself fall apart?"

Having been blown away by Tabitha Suzuma's sensitively-handled novel Forbidden - about a brother and sister who fall in love - I did what any self-respecting book fiend would do: I hopped straight on the internet to find out what else she'd written.  Imagine my delight when I stumbled across A Note of Madness and its sequel, A Voice in the Distance, about a promising young pianist and his battle with bipolar disorder.  Not only is mental health one of my pet subjects, for obvious reasons, but the premise also reminded me of K.M. Peyton's Pennington novels, about a young rebel who happens to be a superb pianist, which I fell in love with in my early teens.

So, nostalgia aside, back to this novel.  Flynn Laukonen and his friends Harry and Jennah have grown up together and are now all students at the Royal College of Music in London.  As one of only two brilliant pianists at the College, it is Flynn who is really admired as one of its rising stars.  Unfortunately, the pressure on him to perform, coupled with his ongoing rivalry with fellow pianist Andre, triggers a break in his mental health, and as he cycles between manic periods of high creativity, boundless energy and deep understanding of music, and crashing lows when he barely gets out of bed except to go to the bathroom, Harry takes the brave step of calling in Flynn's doctor brother Rami to help.

I thought this was a very truthful novel in terms of the experience of bipolar disorder; in fact, great swathes could have come straight from my own life.  The overzealous good humour, compulsive drive to create and the appreciation of sensory pleasures, the reckless disregard for property and societal expectations, the crushing periods of existential despair and seething hate, the sudden disappearance of cognitive ability and the loss of concentration (which is why things go so quiet around the blog when I'm in a bad way) - I've been there, and it felt so... not reassuring, exactly... maybe comforting?... to have someone write about these feelings and crises so beautifully.  It's always interesting to read mental health-themed novels, especially by people outside of that sphere of experience (I assume), to see if they've done it justice, as it were.  Tabitha Suzuma gets plenty of author brownie points from me for getting it right.  She also gets bonus points for not taking the novel quite where I expected it to go; she sidesteps the more tense but also highly melodramatic climax I'd been anticipating, which was simultaneously slightly disappointing but also more realistic, so I was happy on balance.

Admittedly, her story doesn't touch on many of the more mundane aspects of life with a mental disorder, particularly with regards to treatment.  By writing Flynn's brother as a doctor, Suzuma keeps her plot tight and opens the door for an examination of the different aspects of their relationship as Flynn's mental health deteriorates, but she also gives herself a convenient escape from some of the more traumatic consequences of a diagnosis like bipolar.  For example, Flynn's late-teen age group gives his friends the maturity to give him support instead of ridicule, something I found at university but not at school; a younger character might not have been so lucky.  Likewise, Rami's occupation and his ability to pull strings at the local hospital means no presenting to A and E when things get dire, no lengthy waits for appointments, no trekking painfully slowly from GP to Pathfinder nurse to consultant and back again in the quest for help.  When things get out of hand Rami's always there, so Harry, Jennah and even Flynn's parents never really have to deal with him in crisis.  Still, this would have made for a rather dull novel, and what's more important is how skilfully Suzuma portrays these characters and this illness for a young adult audience as part of a compelling story.  For me, she did a brilliant job, which definitely gets her off the hook for overlooking a few of the more boring details.

Bottom line: This is an excellent read for anyone with an interest in mental health, for teens looking for an accurate depiction of bipolar symptoms and its effects on mood, college work and general living, and for readers who fancy an unusual British contemporary YA to fly through this summer.  There's some music talk, a dose of humour, strong friendships, a little romance and a pinch of family drama, something for everyone really.  I'm looking forward to reading the sequel very soon!

Notable Quotables:
  • "Each note was more poignant than the last, more exquisite, until you didn't feel as if another could surpass it and then one did and it was utterly overwhelming, so much so that your chest ached and your eyes stung and your whole body felt as if it would burst."
  • "The weather had been glorious all day and the golden light outside promised a magical sunset.  He thought of the couples and families strolling in the park, enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine, and was filled with an inexplicable sadness.  The light would be shimmering on the Serpentine, the raised voices of children echoing from a distance.  The leaves on the trees would be stirring in the breeze, the sunlight flooding the grass with golden confetti, the sky a deep, painful blue.  The thought of going to the park was inconceivable - the sight of such aching beauty would infuse his soul with pain."
  • "Flynn felt himself begin to shake...  It clung to him, an invisible cloak of agitation and self-destruction that sent acid fury shooting through his veins... There was fire burning through him, creating an overpowering urge to scream, kick, yell...  He couldn't talk without wanting to shout.  Couldn't move without lashing out."
  • "I can't.  The two words seemed permanently lodged inside his head.  I can't play tomorrow... I can't go to the rehearsal, I can't tidy the flat, I can't go for a run and I sure as hell can't practise."
  • "Flynn pressed his hands against his face and felt hot tears trickle between his fingers.  He wanted everything to go away.  He wanted everything to stop.  As long as he lived, he would never escape himself.  How much more could he endure?  Another fifty years, another sixty?  How could he endure the weeks, the months, the years, when he couldn't even get through the hours?  It was only a matter of time.  Only a matter of time before he reached the end of his tether and found himself incapable of carrying on for another day.  He would not make it through a lifetime.  Not like this..."

Source: I bought this book from... Amazon Marketplace?  I think.  It's been a while!