Fairy tales feature a lot in Angela Young’s striking and sensitive novel, Speaking of Love and as I was reading them, I wondered why it was that the particular ‘voice’ of the tale should be so powerful. And it seemed to me that the fairy tale combines violent disaster with miraculous recovery in a way that suggests this is nothing more than the common unfolding of fate. Dreadful things happen so that lessons may be learned, but that’s just life going about its business. No need to make a fuss about it.
The fairy tales belong to Iris Marchwood who has come to a castle in Wales for a festival of storytelling. Weaving stories out of thin air has long been her practice, and she has had more violent disaster than most to turn into metaphor. The traumatic death of her mother and her father’s emotional unavailability left her a vulnerable adult, and the little happiness she had with the wild red-headed poet Kit, with whom she has a daughter, Vivie, was short-lived and followed by psychotic episodes. Vivie, only ten at the time, was left to deal with her mother as best she could, and in consequence has been deeply scarred by the experience.
Now Vivie’s adult life is a mess. She can’t hold down a job, her marriage is crumbling and she is terrified of seeing her mother. Disturbing mantras rule her mind, notably, the knowledge that ‘you had to be on guard because you never knew when your own insides – or anyone else’s insides – might spill out.’ An insightful glimpse into the world of the child subject to emotional violence in their parents. The harder Vivie holds out against the confusing voices in her head, the closer to her own vortex of madness she stumbles. Will she turn into her mother after all?
The third hand in this narration belongs to Matthew who grew up next door to Vivie and who has loved her all his life without ever being able to tell her so. He is driving his elderly father from Thetford Forest, where he lives, to the storytelling event in Wales, and as they make the journey, father and son have their own pieces of the puzzle to add to the complex picture that is the mother and daughter’s relationship. In the four days of their cross-country odyssey, the past will come clear, the violence dissipate, and some miraculous recoveries seem suddenly possible.
This is a brave and beautiful book, fearlessly and compassionately charting the terrain of mental illness. Reading it made me realise how the responses of most people to emotional and mental disturbance in others grow out of the violence of fear – the fear of everything churned up, damaged and troubling that we all carry within. Those early responses to schizophrenic patients – lock them up, chain them down, wipe out their memories with ECT – are the physical counterparts of brutal feelings that demand the ugliness of ill health be kept out of sight of the normal people. For fear of what it might trigger in them, of course. ‘Because until you know you can hold your own centre of gravity in the face of another’s loss of it,’ Ruth, the gentle doctor says in the novel, ‘you may very well be overwhelmed… all over again.’
I think that’s why recovery still seems miraculous – it’s a miracle when people manage to find kindness, love and compassion, and yet these are the only tools that work against emotional darkness. The sadder a person is, the more troubled they are, the more love they need around them before they can face their own demons. In a world where some areas of health care are beginning to realise this, it’s a sorry state of affairs that for the most part we continue to meet almost all negative feelings – misery, self-pity, post-traumatic stress and madness – with contempt, ridicule, indifference and anger. Matthew’s father, Dick, calls Iris a ‘remarkable woman’, and he’s right to do so. Those who know mental health issues are forced to find extraordinary courage to deal with them.
There aren’t enough books about healing out there, and when they do come along, we have to be grateful if they’re as splendid as Speaking of Love. The use of fairy tales mixes here with a voice that is gentle and just and hopeful, taking us through any upsetting events in safety. There’s even a happy ending of the unfinished and open kind that those who don’t like happy endings might appreciate. This is a book that cares deeply for its characters, and it sees them through violent disaster and miraculous recovery with tender concern. It tells us that dreadful things happen, and all we need to combat them are time, love and stories. No need to make a fuss about it.