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

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