Review: Poppy Shakespeare, Clare Allan

Remember when I said I love y’all?  And one of the things I said was that y’all have offered me books just because I said I really wanted to read them?  Well, Poppy Shakespeare is one of those.  raidergirl at an adventure in reading reviewed it a while ago, and I had a moan over the fact that my library hadn’t got it and wouldn’t order it (my library has a function where you can ask it to order books but they have never, ever listened to one of my suggestions; meanwhile a good friend of mine says they order every book she asks for), and anyway raidergirl sent it to me!  All the way from Canada!

Why I wanted it: It’s narrated by a patient of a mental hospital in England, and explores the whole idea of mental health infrastructure and how it works and when it fails.  The narrator, N, considers that she knows mental illness (what she calls “dribbling”) better than anyone else, as she has been crazy all her life.  She is proud when she is chosen to act as a guide to a new day patient, a woman called Poppy Shakespeare who doesn’t act like the other dribblers and passionately denies that she belongs there.

I know nothing at all about the state of mental health and mental hospitals in Britain, and I expect that a lot of the satire went flying miles over my head.  However, I thought Allen’s depiction of the Dorothy Fish day ward rang very true: the hierarchy, the scrambling to do well (or, you know, badly) on assessments, the strong and passionate resistance to change.  I also thought that N’s devotion to Poppy worked gorgeously, not just her obvious desire to be a good guide and help Poppy (by her lights), but also the way her language changed and reflected things that Poppy had said.

I generally will say that I do not like a descent into madness book.  I find them disorienting and generally not very subtle, or when they are subtle they’re too subtle, and altogether I am impossible to please on the descent into madness front.  The Haunting of Hill House is one of only a very few descent into madness books that I find acceptable.  (“Descent into madness book” is not a very snappy thing to call this sort of a book.  Hm, if only there were a better word for descent into madness books….)  Poppy Shakespeare did not bother me in this regard because the point of view character wasn’t the one descending; she’d already descended, if you will, and was comfortable with where she was.  So it was less stressful for me to watch Poppy descending into madness, and I loved it how the book kept me guessing – is she or isn’t she?

(I still don’t really know.)

(Mental illness is like that sometimes.)

Oh, you know what bugged me?  I didn’t know any of those medications!  Because, of course, they were not real ones, and Clare Allan rather cleverly gave them (and most of the doctors) dire, evil-sounding names.  This was a nifty plot idea, but I love it when I encounter drugs whose names I know in books, because then I think about what those particular drugs are for (anti-anxiety, anti-psychosis) and what their side effects are, and then I watch the characters to see if they respond the way they’re meant to.  Which I wouldn’t have been able to do here even if Clare Allan had used proper drugs, because they’re in Britain and everything is called something else in Britain.

Other reviews:

an adventure in reading

Did I miss yours?  Let me know!  I will add a link!

44 thoughts on “Review: Poppy Shakespeare, Clare Allan

    • Ah, and I see you included something similar to that in your tags. What is it with your blog and me reading something AFTER leaving my comment that makes my first comment sound idiotic??

    • Hahahaha, sorry! It’s my fault for putting all that stuff in the tags. I always forget they don’t show up in Google Reader.

      Although it would be a bit awesome if the mental illness challenge were in fact imaginary. You know, if it got mentioned as a thing but all the links were dead and the introduction posts never really happened. The motto of the challenge can be “If you’re not crazy now, YOU WILL BE.”

      So clearly I have seen Gaslight too many times. 😛

  1. For the record, your library can likely get you books through Link+ or ILL if they aren’t willing to actually acquire them for you. (Or sometimes they can find the book in other libraries in the state/county/city depending on how it’s divided up)

    For example, in Contra Costa County, California (hahahah CCCC) they’re all one set of libraries with a shared collection, so they’ll send any book to any branch. Get chummy with your librarians and they’ll hook you up.

    Onto the actual book…

    I’ve never been one for actually looking up the medications, especially because I don’t know what half of them do. There’s the name, the generic name, the complicated sciency name, the abbreviated name… etc. ugh.

    This one’s definitely not my style, but you do make it sound good.

    • I know my library has an ILL program, but I feel too guilty to use it. When I was at university, they had an ILL program, and I used it constantly with no guilt because I figure, I’m paying university fees, and this is what they fund. But with the public library, I dunno, they’re funded with property taxes and I don’t pay property taxes. So I feel like if I’m going to ILL a book I really have to LOVE it, and it’s just too much pressure for my guilt-ridden self. 😛

      Well, I know a bunch of the meds, because I used to volunteer at a suicide hotline. They had a nice little sign on the wall of all these common psychiatric meds and what they do. Plus I am super interested in mental health and the brain.

      • Don’t feel guilty! It’s like any other taxes. We who pay property taxes pay them for YOU, who don’t. If you paid them, you’d be happy for a renter or a homeless person to use ILL, wouldn’t you? Here. I, personally, donate my taxes to your ILL fund. (The fact that we don’t live in the same place is irrelevant.) 🙂

      • Plus, by utilizing ILL, you may be helping your library. Their job is to move books, and if you make requests, it keeps somebody busy, and necessary. Plus, by using the ILL, they have to keep it. It’s your duty to use ILL and keep your librarians busy.

        They may even be able to hire somebody else if you request enough!

      • *crackles hands confidently* ahhh, you see, Jenny, you misunderstand the system. Now, as we all know, education is very important to society so that people will be able to be well informed citizens. It’s so vital to our system of government that education is nigh a fundamental right. And naturally, reading is vital to education. Now, in the case of fundamental rights, society has an obligation to make sure people have the right to exercise that right. Well, you can’t read without books. And the government has an obligation to make available to you a means to exercise this right. Now, this entails expense, which is paid via taxes, much like other education, and these taxes are paid more by the rich than the poor, which effectively gives the rich the obligation to subsidize the rights of the poor. You’re welcome to object to this in the context of education, but until you’re willing to do that, you cannot object to interlibrary loans on similar ground, and therefore might as well exercise your right to read.

      • I wish someone would tell all librarians what raidergirl said. I am a librarian-lover, especially of the librarians in some of my past libraries who would get all happy when you wanted something they didn’t have. I was quite shocked when I first went to the reference desk at the main library of my current system (where you go for ILL, but they’d rather you didn’t know then, and they have the desk all hidden in a corner, with the librarian hiding behind a tall counter, doing her best to look busy and unavailable to smelly strange people who Want Things) and asked for a book, and she said “we don’t have that,” and I said “I know, could you please get it by ILL,” and she stared at me as if I had offered her sex for money, and as if, perhaps, if she stared at me long enough I would reassess my frivolous desire to read the one missing book a whole BUILDING full of other books.

        Librarians are mostly nice, but the mean ones can be really scary. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t done ILL for two years, now, even though I’m sure they would be nice about it (though baffled) at my tiny branch library.

        I’m deeply impressed that you volunteered for a suicide hotline, Jenny.

        Imagine if the people on suicide hotlines acted like scary reference librarians! Come to think of it, how would a reference librarian know that the person coming to them for a copy of their favorite childhood novel via ILL isn’t in desperate straits, trying to convince themselves there’s a reason to stick around?

      • Haha, y’all are so nice, trying to make me feel better.

        Other Jenny: Thank you! You are very generous! 😛

        raidergirl3: That is actually a very good point. I mean we wouldn’t want them to eliminate the program, God knows. Then what would all the legitimate property-tax-paying library patrons do?

        Anna: I am not sure I believe the government has an obligation to give us books to read for free. I’ve always thought of libraries as one of those beautiful shiny treats that Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson thought up for us. I don’t mind at all that the rich are subsidizing the poor in this way, but since I am not “the poor” but indeed have a fairly solid financial cushion in the form of a large and generous family, I feel mildly uncomfortable costing the library extra specific money, given that I vote money to them but never pay any. Like, when I borrow books and all, I myself, me specifically, I am not costing them any money they wouldn’t otherwise be spending. They’d have those staff people doing that job whether I came or not, they’d have those books whether I came or not. Whereas interlibrary loans are me asking the library to spend money specifically on me, when I haven’t done anything to deserve extra money spent on me.

        (Dear Puritan forebears, Thanks for all the guilt. Kisses, Jenny.)

        Trapunto – So agree about librarians. In middle school, I was the apple of my librarian’s eye, and worked in the library during PE class and in the summers, and she bought me Cokes and pizza. Then I got to high school and our librarians were terrifying troll-people who inexplicably disliked me. They did! I was once sitting in the library, reading about the Scopes trial, and one of the librarians came over to me and said darkly, “I’m watching you.”

        The suicide hotline always sounds more impressive than it is, hahaha. I don’t mean that it’s not a really great service to offer (it definitely is!), but just that a lot of people imagine it to be difficult and scary, and it’s really not. I went through a very good training before starting, and they gave us really clear parameters for what to say and how to manage everything. And it’s incredibly rewarding, and I like talking about feelings. 😛

      • well, the government probably does have an obligation to give you at least some level of education for free! And reading is fundamental to education. So.

        And I will grant that you are not deprived, and do in fact have a large and very generous family. But you do not make much money, and your family does not provide you with new books which are vital to your ability to exercise your right to vote and free speech rights intelligently. So the subsidy is entirely appropriate.

        And wasn’t it nice when we were the apple of librarians eyes? The ones up here are still a bit cranky at me about a cite-check book the law review kept and kept and kept. And kept. I’m not bitter.

  2. I bought this book a few months ago in a booksale, and I have yet to read it. Your review made me want to read it more. I think I generally have some trouble with reading books about mental illness (don’t ask me why I bought this when I knew I don’t enjoy the genre in general), but I think this one just moved up on my TBR pile because you managed to convince me that this might not be like the others.

    • I often don’t enjoy fiction about mental illness. I think it’s really difficult to do well, and plus a lot of writers do the sort of book where the point of view character gets crazier and crazier until you have no idea what’s going on. I do not like being confused on purpose (usually).

  3. try asking in person. Is the nice blonde one who likes enders game still there? She’d be a good shot, but I don’t recall seeing her in ages.

    Also, I think that’s smart that the author used made up drugs, because it keeps you from focussing on the drugs side effects and keeps you aimed at the things the author wants to direct you to.

    In other news, are you going to be able to use the library of the Impressive Academic Place this summer? (see how I remembered to be vague? I CAN SO KEEP SECRETS!)

    • She still works there, but she’s got some lofty position now. She’s in charge of stuff now. I agree with you it’s clever making up drug names. I support her. I just would have enjoyed hearing names. A lot of drugs have cool names!

      I don’t know if I am or not! (You are not that good at keeping secrets.) Diwen keeps telling me she’s SURE they’ll let me use it, they give ID tags to EVERYONE, etc., etc., but I can’t help feeling I’m way too lowly. I don’t want to get my hopes up, and I feel like I can’t email the internship coordinator to ask because then she’ll think I’m greedy and only interested in sucking Impressive Academic Place dry like a books vampire.

      • They’d likely let you in (they let us in, after all, a fact some of us have rued during cite-checks). They just don’t let us check things out. So there is hope. Also, my Impressive Academic Roommate commented when I asked if youd be likely to be allowed to check out books that he can check books out, so if you desperately want something, and he’s in town, he’d likely check it out.

      • Aw, that’s so sweet. But I don’t want to take advantage of him and order oodles of books. I am also hoping that the guy I’m subletting from really DOES have “tons of books” (Diwen says he does), and they are not law books but interesting books, and he doesn’t mind my reading some of them. That would be nice.

      • Also there is the public library, which you won’t be able to get a card to, but I have one, and it’s very conveniently located downtown. It’s not as good as the one back home, but it’s not bad. And you know I have books, but unfortunately, you’ve pretty much read everything I have already.

  4. It’s funny Katy mentions _I Never Promised You a Rose Garden_ – I’ve been thinking of it throughout your imaginary Mental Heath Challenge. I LOVED the book when I first read it, but it is horrifyingly out of date now…it’s sort of like reading about Bedlam. They were so sure they could talk the protagonist out of being schizophrenic – and, as I recall, they kind of DID. Not very believable, now that I know a bit more about mental illness.

      • Yes, that’s pretty much the impression I had of it – brilliantly written, in a way, and absolutely engrossing, but so very out of date that it’s no longer as good a book as I’m sure it was when it first came out. But I still recommend it, I think. It may make you want to travel back in time and lecture the author, but it will definitely suck you in.

  5. I’m glad you liked the book. I liked the whole heirarchy in the dribblers, and her complete flabbergastness that someone would not want to be there, and be the worst.

    I guess Clare Allen was smart to make up drug names because otherwise smart alecks like you would be complaining that she gave the wrong drug to the wrong patient, or that drug didn’t match the symptoms.

    I wonder how different the Brit system is to the US or Canada. I can’t imagine it’s that much different in some ways.

    Your mental illness challenge gets better and better.

    • Hahaha, I wouldn’t have complained. I would just have been interested. The brain is so fiddly and we know so little about it that doctors prescribe all sorts of medications for all sorts of symptoms and mental illness diagnoses. It would be difficult to find a diagnosis/medication match that would make me think: Oh please, a doctor would never in a billion years ever prescribe THAT for THAT. Especially because comorbidity is so high in this field.

      I loved the hierarchy of the dribblers. So many details I thought were really good, like Banker Bill (if I’m remembering his name right) being so choosy about what pills he’d accept, and how he’d sell them.

  6. The mental illness challenge sounds awesome! You could read Marcelo in the Real World and Bleeding Violet and and ….. wow that’s all I can think of. I think I have heard of 2 YA books coming out about schizophrenia, but really, why is mental illness such an ignored topic? (in YA at least)

    Poppy Shakespeare sounds interesting. Based on the title I was thinking it would be like Shakespeare’s daugther or wife or mother or something. haha.

    I like how the author made up drug names that still sound credible.
    Not sure if you post awards (no big deal if you don’t) but I gave you one 🙂

    • I really want to read Bleeding Violet!!

      I think it’s hard to write about mental illness in part because it’s so stigmatized, and there aren’t a whole lot of models in the media to tell us about the experience of being mentally ill. So people often do tend to think of mental illness as this kind of extreme of scary craziness, whereas in reality most people with mental illness aren’t anywhere near that extreme. Also there’s still a lot that we don’t know about mental illness and where it comes from and how to classify it, and I’m sure that plays into it as well. :/

  7. I like reading books about mental illness, they’re so fascinating. (Never Promised You a Rose Garden was the first one I ever came across, as a teen, and then One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Funny, when I saw you all talking about ILL I thought- ill? sickness in the library? what? then I remember what it stood for! My library charges $3 for them so I don’t bother, as long as I can find enough reading material via the branches. (I loved it when I lived in San Fran- their ILL program is free, and I used it all the time to read odd, obscure, out-of-print fiction. It was great!)

    PS: I’d do a mental illness reading challenge if you start one!

    • One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest scared the crap out of me. I read it when I was maybe fourteen, at night, alone in the house with these two kids I was baby-sitting. I know it’s not a typical “horror” book but it scared me a lot. I was sitting on the sofa reading it and jumping at every tiny little noise. 😛

      I swear I’m going to start this challenge someday! I just am rubbish at thinking up names, and I do not know how to design a button.

  8. This sounds super interesting! I think I’ll add it to my tbr, but I suppose I’ll have to learn something about the mental institutions in Britain before I start it. Thanks for introducing me to it. Oh, and yay for mentions of The Haunting of Hill House!

    • Yeah, I need to learn about them too, particularly the history of privatization. I vaguely recall that privatization of mental health services (and other stuff) was a big thing under Margaret Thatcher, but that’s all I know. I wish I knew of a good nonfiction book on mental health in Britain in the twentieth and twenty-first century. That’s exactly the background I would want.

  9. I’m so glad to see this review, as it’s a book that I’ve noticed a lot but not wanted to pick up because I knew nothing about it. All changed now! My favourite mental-illness-lite book is The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. That was fantastic. We Brits like our crazy characters, I think.

    • I looooved Esme Lennox. It’s more about mental health services really, and the oppression of women using that as an excuse, than it is about the experience of mental illness. But yeah, I loved that book a lot. Maggie O’Farrell is one of those authors I’m afraid to read a second book by, in case she disappoints me. 😛

    • Oo, goody. I read two Ruth Rendell books and wasn’t crazy about them, but I’ve heard the ones she writes under Barbara Vine are better. I liked Asta’s Book (Anna’s Book?), and I bought a used copy of A Dark-Adapted Eye recently, so that’s on my radar.

    • I’d heard there was a TV adaptation, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get it in the States. They’re releasing more British DVDs in America these days than they used to, though. So maybe! Did you see it? Was it any good?

  10. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, to reiterate that well worn phrase…I and quite a few others on an online book club voted this our worst book of the year in 2007, I think I was the only one to succeed in finishing it and thus gained a virtual medal. I am glad to see that lots of other people loved it, twould be a sad, boring world if we all liked the same thing. 😉
    PS I loved Esme Lennox and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…

    • Aw, shame y’all didn’t enjoy it! But yes, Esme Lennox and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest are both very good – except one I’ll be able to revisit and one scared me so bad I may never pick it up again. 😛

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