Tuesday, 25 January 2011

3/111 - Your Voice In My Head by Emma Forrest

This is a book I bought recently. When I was buying The Help to brush up for my interview at Penguin, I needed something to make up the 3 for 2 offer. I had recently read an article in a Sunday Times magazine about Emma Forrest, and I was intrigued and decided to go for it.

It’s an autobiography, but the style of it reads quite a lot like a novel. Forrest is a novelist and screenwriter, so perhaps this is why. (I mean this comment as a positive, not a negative.) As a reader of mostly fiction, I’m not sure I could ever write by autobiography without it feeling like a novel. But the debate about the fine line between biography and fiction is for another day.

Your Voice In My Head charts Forrest’s move to New York as a young writer and her realisation that her quirks are perhaps more than quirks. After a string of terrible relationships and self-harming incidents including cutting and bulimia, Forrest is diagnosed as bipolar and put under the care of the mysteriously named Dr R. Forrest’s mental health problems are portrayed with frankness and sometimes humour. She often equates her illness with water; either rushing or stagnant and with the potential for drowning.

Her relationship with Dr R and her subsequent grief when he dies unexpectedly are what touched me most. She writes about him with great affection and admiration, as though he has become a member of her own family. From other parts of her book, it seems that Forrest has some issues regarding her relationships with men, but her relationship with Dr R is very much separate from this. The letters and tributes included from his other patients are also a lovely addition.

I was touched not only because of her deep love for Dr R, but also because of my own experiences with mental health and saying goodbye to a – I’m not even sure which word to use – a counsellor.

C & L were two different women I encountered during my time at University. C worked at the university, and L was a counsellor I saw outside of university for my ongoing problems. My relationships with C & L were not as long as Forrest’s relationship with Dr. R and did not end under any such tragic circumstances. However for several years they were an incredibly important part of my life. I stopped being a patient due to a move away from the area after my degree. They were both kind and seemed wise (though I’m sure they would have assured me otherwise). Before becoming ill, I had never considered the possibility of having a relationship like that with an older woman/ mother figure, let alone a mental health professional. I think of them often.

Still, the pain of saying goodbye to them was bereaving and unexpected. I had known the end was coming and was able to say goodbye. What’s more, they are both alive and well. I can’t imagine Forrest’s pain.

She also writes wonderfully about the love of her family, and it’s clear that she knows how incredibly lucky she is. There are also the passages about her former relationship with who she calls her Gypsy Husband. From some reviews, people seem to have taken to this pretty unkindly, which I think is unfair. I don’t tend to read many autobiographies, but when people launch accusations of the writer being ‘self-absorbed’, I have to say – what do you expect?! An autobiography is self-absorbed by its very nature! I’d also like to meet anyone who can claim not to be self-absorbed. But perhaps that’s just me trying to justify my own self-absorb-idity?

Your Voice In My Head was funny and touching, and I especially enjoyed reading about another person’s recollections of a fondly remembered carer. I liked it.

Next up is: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.

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