As the year draws to a close, Sadie Nott presents a roundup of 2018’s prize winning, praised and bestselling novels and memoirs with mental health themes.
There are many reasons for wanting to sit down with a good book about mental health. Reading for just six minutes lowers stress by two thirds and is more effective than listening to music, having a cup of tea or going for a walk. Stories generate empathy, they help us to understand our own and others’ emotional states. When we find aspects of our psychologically troubled selves in stories we feel seen and less alone.
"The year’s best books include several about trauma of various types."
This overview shines a spotlight on thirteen of the best recent novels and memoirs about mental health. The best is a subjective concept and, to make this booklist less so, the books were selected for having won, or been nominated for, literary prizes in 2018, or being a ‘best book of year’, or bestseller, in the same period.
Two books stand out because they have been in the UK bestseller lists for much of the year. One is Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (winner, British Book Awards: Debut Fiction). Eleanor has created a carefully ordered, socially isolated life for herself to blot out a terrible childhood event. After an unexpected friendship develops, little by little she find the courage to look at what she has hidden away. It ends with a great, but rather psychologically implausible, twist. Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig (Number one Sunday Times Bestseller) is part memoir and part self-help book and is about anxiety and mental turmoil. Tackling areas such as the internet, overload, and sleep, Haig asks ‘how can we live in a mad world without going mad ourselves?’
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The year’s best books include several about trauma of various types. Milkman by Anna Burns (winner Man Booker) is the story of the gradual ‘dissembling’ of the young female protagonist, after she is stalked by a much older paramilitary known as Milkman in an unnamed country with clear echoes of 1980s Northern Ireland. The blankness and emptiness she takes on as a defence grows to be her unintended inner world. She becomes seen as one of the community’s ‘beyond the pales’ and finds herself thinking ‘what’s the point’ like her frequently hospitalised depressed father. In Flights by Olga Tokarczuc (winner Man Booker, International), a complex book about travel and the human body as much as mental distress, there is an unsettling story about a traumatised man. The man wakes in the night feeling the same way he did after a flood. There is no catastrophe but ‘a kind of hole has opened up, a rupture’. His words disappear, he cannot think. His wife and son had mysteriously disappeared on an island holiday but returned, so why is he mentally falling apart? In Ever Dundas’ novel Goblin (longlisted Not the Booker) it is the evocation of the more distant past that is troubling elderly hero, Ms G Bradfield. A newspaper article catapults the protagonist back to childhood: ‘Time has collapsed and space has collapsed and they have emerged from the darkness below’. It is 2011 and Ms Bradfield ends up in riot-torn London with memories of her feral childhood when the same city was being torn apart by bombing in World War II. The distinction between illusion and reality is blurred and the reader does not know if parts of the story are magical fantasy or, as one reviewer put it, ‘psychological swerves from the utter trauma of reality’.
Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries (New York Times Bestseller) is also about trauma, particularly the intergenerational and cultural trauma experienced by indigenous people in Canada, and an abusive childhood. She is hospitalised, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD, and given a notebook in the hope that writing will prove healing. The book begins ‘My story was maltreated. My words were too wrong and ugly to speak’, but the words in the book have a powerful beauty and there is tenderness mixed in with the rawness. All the Good Things by Clare Fisher (winner Betty Trask Award) is also about writing one’s way out of emotional pain. Twenty-one year old Beth is in prison for a crime unrevealed until the end of the book. Her counsellor asks Beth to make a list of all the good things in her life. Capturing on paper the small joys in her difficult past helps Beth to confront the bad thing she cannot bear to think about and is also an important part of her recuperation after a mental breakdown. Another novel which explores the power of stories to deal with mental health issues is How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus (longlisted Desmond Elliott Prize). In this book it is the protagonist’s mother who has the mental breakdown. Ten year old Ellie draws on her fisherman father’s sea-myths and creates and performs her own mini-play to understand and express the frightening and inexplicable things happening to her unwell mother. The novel’s lyrical language perfectly encapsulates both the northern seaside town where the book is set and Ellie’s turbulent inner world.
Many novels and memoirs are not badged as mental health books but address mental health issues as part of a wider story or explore the margins where mental illness blurs with the human condition. Topics such as grief, sadness, loss, trauma and emotional distress are at the heart of much creative writing. Sally Rooney’s Normal People (winner of Specsavers Book Awards, international author) is primarily about a relationship. Marianne is socially awkward and there is a school rumour that ‘she has a mental illness or something’. Despite their very different backgrounds, Marianne and the son of her mother’s cleaner, seemingly uncomplicated and confident Connell, fall in love. The two then go to university in Dublin and both change. Marianne feels herself to be ‘degenerating, moving further and further from wholesomeness’ and Connell falls into what he refers to as ‘the depression and everything’. The contested nature of psychological difficulties is explored in Diana Evans’ Ordinary People (a New Yorker Best Books of 2018). Does main character, Melissa, have postnatal depression or a normal reaction to the humorously described stresses of new motherhood? Are the strange happenings in Melissa’s house a sort of haunting or a symptom of emotional breakdown? Is recently bereaved Damian suffering from natural grief or a depression that necessitates the therapy his wife is urging him to have? In contrast to Damian, the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa MoshFegh (a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2018) is keen to seek treatment. She starts seeing a psychiatrist, wanting ‘some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgements, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything’. The novel tells the tale of her year-long medication-induced hibernation.
Lastly, every year yields up memoirs by celebrities talking about their mental health difficulties. This year it is two singer-songwriters who have made the bestseller lists. In A Better Me (Number one Sunday Times Bestseller) Gary Barlow describes his road back from depression and weight problems. Lily Allen, author of My Thoughts Exactly (a Sunday Times Bestseller) shares her experiences of substance abuse, a highly traumatic stillbirth, and postnatal depression. Both books are written in a straightforward, easy-to-read way which will appeal to those struggling with mental health problems that impair concentration. Whilst the lifestyles and resources of celebrities are highly atypical, these books show that even the most outwardly enviable lives can be beset by psychological troubles.
The experiences of men are under-represented in this list. Apart from Heart Berries and Ordinary People, there are no stories about people of colour. A recent anthology, The Colour of Madness: Exploring BAME mental health in the UK (edited by Samara Linton and Rianna Walcott), provides some important short fiction and life writing in this area. There was also a dearth of stories about hospitalisation and about psychosis in this roundup of the best mental health books of 2018.
For thirty years, from 1981 to 2011, the Mind Book of the Year, championed mental health books like the ones listed here, bringing them to public attention and critical acclaim. Whilst Mind continues to review fiction and non-fiction on its website, perhaps it is time for a new national book prize specifically for mental health books to be established.
Sadie Nott is a writer and winner of a Creative Future Literary Award 2018 for her short story on psychiatric medication and grief.