Speaking of Love

speaking of love 2013 ftrgb (hi-res jpeg, cover large)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.



27 thoughts on “Speaking of Love

  1. I just wanted to apologise for being so behind in responding to comments. Things have been busy and more than a bit crazy here – I’ll write a post about all that soon. In the meantime I do love and appreciate your comments and look forward to replying to them!

  2. Speaking of Love was one of those slow-burning reads that took me over completely – I love your insightful review – ‘no need to make a fuss about it’ !

  3. This is a peculiar thing to admit but your compassionate and insightful review of my book, Victoria, had me in tears. I can only think it’s because the book was written a few years ago and I’ve lost touch with its triggering impulses. But your clear analysis of what the book (and I) believe can help those in mental turmoil reminded me how I felt then, and of course still do feel. But I’d ‘forgotten’ the underlying feelings and your review reminded me. It’s very simple, really, as you so beautifully write: time, love and stories. If we’re lucky enough to find someone who can listen compassionately to our own stories and help us find others to replace the ones that have damaged us, then we can begin. But first fear must be overcome. And that, often, isn’t simple at all.

    • Oh you are so right. Fear holds us in stories that are potent and damaging, I think. Milton Erickson used to say that where fear was concerned what was needed was a completely different story, one out of left field, to shake us out of the stranglehold. And it’s extremely hard to find that. I loved your book, and feel sure it must have helped a great many people already, and a great many more still to come.

  4. Your fairy tale comment was an apt one for me as I’ve just finished a novel in which they are a strong element – I wondered if they resonate so strongly because we hear them so often in childhood. They touch something very deep in us. Thank you for pointing me at Speaking of Love – just about to add it to my list!

    • Yes, I do think they appeal to a certain kind of intelligence that operates in children and that we can lose touch with in later life – and one that is useful to reawaken. I’m intrigued to know which book it was that you were reading – I’ll come over and find out!

  5. Sounds like a very good book. It is a shame that mental health issues are still so publicly misunderstood. It has gotten better, but even so, a good deal of mental health care is still not covered by insurance in the US.

    • That is outrageous, isn’t it? How on earth do the relatives of sick people cope? I still think we have to begin at grass roots – by accepting negative emotions in their ordinary guises and having some sympathy for them. And of course stories are the one place where everything is permitted, and they can be valuable too.

  6. I find it really interesting how many great books reference fairy tales in one way and another. I think it has something to do with the way in which we all use story as a means of trying to understand who we are and how we fit in to the world around us. ‘Narrative is a primary act of mind’, wrote Barbara Hardy – one of the truest things I have ever read. As a group we have recently read Sathnam Sanghera’s ‘The Boy with the Topknot’ in which he explores his relationship with schizophrenia within his own family. This would make an excellent follow-up.

    • Alex, the way we use narrative in daily life is something that fascinates me, too. I love the Barbara Hardy quote, and I hope you’ll post about your book group. That sounds like a book which might provoke a very interesting discussion.

  7. This sounds like a book I need to read. Perhaps soon. I’m off to visit my mother next week, and sometimes that’s fun, although other times it’s like jumping into a maelstrom of madness.

  8. Oh I do like the sound of this book very much! I agree with you about fairy tales. They seem so effective for exploring and healing deep fears and anxieties.

    I hope that things calm down for you soon.

  9. Healing is difficult – I’d not thought of this as a topic before, but now that you mention it I realise you are right. Healing is sometimes used as a book’s “answer”, its conclusion, that bit in the plot arc that signifies a story has come to an end. But a book realistically about healing is going to be difficult to find because in real life healing is difficult. Which makes it so much more special when we find it, in either place.

    • I completely agree with you – and I find myself most irritated by books that work some magically glib healing at the end in order to tie things up neatly. It’s really not that simple.

  10. Interesting book indeed. The fairy tale sure is an effective channel to talk about love, as you said from a safe distance. At the moment I’m looking for British books written in the period between the two world wars, any suggestions? I must find something to substitute Downton Abbey since its S4 just finished here in North America and we have to wait for another year to see the next. 😉

  11. 1930s novelists, eh? Hmm, well, I’d suggest Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love, Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (or any of his early novels), I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Rebecca by du Maurier, anything by Dorothy Whipple (available in Persphone), or either of the two novels that Julian Felllowes has written – Snobs and Past Imperfect. I expect I can think of more if none of those appeal!

    • It’s Angela here, the writer of SPEAKING of LOVE. You can buy paper copies in the US but it hasn’t been published there so I think you’ll only find it through amazon and not in bookshops or libraries, sadly. Also on its amazon US page you’ll see the newly-edited republished kindle edition (if kindling is your thing).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s