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Poppy Shakespeare is a difficult read. It is narrated by "N," who is a patient at the Dorothy Fish, a psychiatric day hospital in London. N has been mad her whole life, even before she was born. She's not the most reliable of narrators, and she is more focused on her own issues than making everything clear to the reader. Here's the start of Chapter 7, "How I gone to the toilet and heard someone crying in the cubicle next door."
Sometimes I sat with Rosetta and Polyanna, sometimes I sat with Elliot and Dawn and sometimes I sat by myself. I weren't one of those dribblers who has to have like a best friend, do you know what I'm saying. Even as a kid I weren't into that stuff. I used to sit where I felt like mostly and if I didn't feel like nothing I used to sit by myself and I kept my eyes fixed firmly on my plate, so no one couldn't catch me a glance and ask to sit down.
There's a profusion of names, colloquialisms, and stream of thought sentences in this novel, and they leave you exhausted. Yet the underlying story is strong. Poppy Shakespeare arrives at the Dorothy Fish insisting that she is not mad, and she does not understand why she has been suddenly forced to start attending as a day patient. At the same time, the hospital is starting to make some changes to its practices. Previously, patients just got their medication, which they sold to other patients, and were left to get on with their lives. Now the hospital is making changes to show that it is efficient, and all patients have to be assessed, and some are getting discharged. All the patients are terrified that they will be selected to leave, especially because most of those who do end up killing themselves. Yet their discharge rate is taken as a sign of the great success of the hospital, and the bureaucrats are thrilled with its performance.
The other great paradox of the story is that for Poppy Shakespeare to fight her compulsory hospitalization, she needs to go to court. But she can't afford to pay for a lawyer herself, and the only way she can get government assistance for her legal fees is if can prove she qualifies for "MAD money." So she has to prove she is mad to be able to prove that she is not mad. The effort do all this may indeed drive her mad.
Allan writes she could not have written the novel were it not for her own personal experience as a patient in a psychiatric day hospital. In N's narrative, we don't learn much about what it is like to have mental illness, but rather how people with mental illnesses talk to each other in institutional settings. Furthermore, we should not take her account literally -- I've never heard of people with mental illnesses calling themselves dribblers -- but rather there's a spirit in her language which is rarely captured and yet is representative of a distinctive use of language. It's striking that in a 2006 article for the Guardian newspaper, "Misplaced Pride," Allan is very skeptical about the idea of Mad Pride celebrating Mad Culture. Her portrayal of the discourse of a group of mentally ill patients is charismatic yet is not meant to romanticize them.
Indeed, Allan's novel is in some ways quite hard on mentally ill people. One example of this is in the names they choose for each other: Slasher Sue, Astrid Arsewipe, Fat Florence. N often is harsh in her descriptions of other people, and makes little distinction between their moral failings and their psychiatric symptoms. One of the questions raised by the story is how to regard N herself, and whether she is a good friend to Poppy. It's never clear how honest N is being, and it is at least a possibility that her own account of her own motives is self-serving. It's possible that N is far more manipulative and scheming than she at first seems. One might even wonder whether the difficulty of the text could be interpreted as an act of hostility to the reader by N.
So Poppy Shakespeare is an intriguing novel with many complexities, open to many interpretations. It's also very different from other novels about mental illness: not a disguised memoir, nor an evocation of the what it is like to be mentally ill, it is more a satire of modern British mental health policy in the national health service. It's not a book to evoke sympathy for the mentally ill; the writing style is bristling with anger and the plot is depressing. It's the kind of book you may be glad you have read, even if you don't enjoy reading it. Nevertheless, it stands out from the crowd, and is worth attention.
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.