I didn’t read much in the way of medicine or health-related books during lockdown, but I have recently started thinking about books which will be eligible for the Wellcome Book Prize next year following its “pause” this year. The three books I have read so far are all powerful and memorable if far from cheerful in their chosen subject matter.
Coming Undone by Terri White is the author’s memoir of her addiction issues and subsequent mental breakdown. The book opens with an account of her admission to a psychiatric ward in a New York hospital. She then details the abuse she suffered during her childhood growing up in poverty in Derbyshire before embarking on a career as a magazine editor. She moved to New York in 2012 where her problems with substance abuse spiralled and her outwardly successful life eventually unravelled. It is difficult to review a book, particularly a memoir, on this subject without using the same old adjectives: raw, honest, brutal, painful. ‘Coming Undone’ is all of those things, but for all its rawness and honesty about White’s state of mind, there does seem to be a lot held back too, especially about her career and more recent relationships, although I expect that this is mostly due to the necessity of protecting those close to her as well as her own privacy and recovery.
The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping by Samantha Harvey is the author’s memoir of her battle with insomnia. Having never had problems with sleeping until her early 40s, she tried everything from drugs to sleep clinics to acupuncture with limited or no success. Living on a busy main road, anger at the result of the EU referendum, the death of her cousin, memories of traumatic events in her past and the beginning of the menopause further exacerbated the problem. The title is fitting – the book itself is shapeless and baggy, an uneasy and disjointed stream of consciousness which blends memoir, flash fiction and essay. Harvey captures the frustrating and unsatisfying nature of insomnia very well and I hope that writing the book was a cathartic experience for her, although I think ‘The Shapeless Unease’ might have worked better as an extended essay without the flash fiction elements.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is a really striking memoir about domestic abuse in a same-sex relationship. It documents Machado’s ex-girlfriend‘s humiliating and controlling behaviour towards her which included gaslighting, passive-aggressiveness and physical violence. ‘In The Dream House’ is not a particularly long book, yet it is crammed with a huge number of ideas, narrative styles and literary tropes – written in over 100 short chapters in various styles covering everything from self-help guides, noir, bildungsroman, folk tales and Choose Your Own Adventure (where the various routes inevitably all lead back to the same place). Its unusual experimental form and depressing subject matter may not sound very appealing, but Machado’s innovative approach makes ‘In The Dream House’ memorable and truly compelling, and the unique structure heightens the emotional impact of her personal experience rather than serving as a distraction. Very little has been written about abusive relationships in a LGBTQ+ context either in academia or more generally, and I think Machado’s book will become a landmark text on the subject.