Young adult fiction is often at its best when it offers us a window into the psychological perspective of a particular character. Novels in this genre are often exclusively first-personal, and they aim to offer us a fascinating way of reaching inside the developing mental life of the teenage protagonist. They help us figure out what makes these characters tick and how they learn to inhabit the worlds (whether fantastical or mundane) that they find themselves in.
The Memory of Light, a new young adult novel by Francisco Stork, adds a fascinating twist to this genre convention: the main character, Vicky, suffers from a deep clinical depression. She begins the novel waking up in a hospital bed after a failed suicide attempt, and the narration of the entire novel is saturated with one teenager's struggle to overcome her own psychological illness. The novel centers around her time spent in hospital (with a lively cast of others suffering through mental illnesses), as well as her attempt to re-enter the world outside of the psych ward.
Stork, who has personal experience with clinical depression, renders the emotional self-reports of Vicky frankly and devastatingly. The novel is often at its best when making strict comparisons between depression and other types of illness, including physical illness. "But sometimes depression is in itself the illness - an illness like any other illness, like the flu or the mumps," Vicky tells us early on. In these passages, Stork demonstrates a deep knowledge of both the clinical research on depression and its phenomenological reality. Depression, it seems, need not have a reason; on this point, Stork is brilliant.
As further evidence of Stork's ability to capture the felt reality of depression, consider this wonderful passage: "I imagine a whole bunch of little minerlike elves who live and work inside the dark tunnels of my brain... they are happy workers, these elves, except when the yellow-purple fog of depression comes in. It's so thick and viscous that the wheels of the carts gum up and the elves can't breathe." In passages like this, The Memory of Light shines.
That being said, there certain points in the narrative where opportunities seemed to be missed. Stork, for instance, almost immediately introduces us to Mona, Vicky's hospital roommate with visible scars on her arms. Given how well the passages of psychological rumination written for Vicky read, however, one might have desired a bit more time early in the narrative for Vicky to be alone with her thoughts. Enforcing some sort of physical sense of loneliness on Vicky to compliment her psychological disconnection might have made the introduction of Mona and the members of Vicky's eventual group (E.M and Gabriel, both with their own psychological illnesses) more impactful. As it stands, she becomes part of this group almost too easily.
The minutiae of the narrative here, however, are not what will bring readers to this book. The Memory of Light sets as its aim to tell a realistic and hard-nosed story about the psychological and phenomenological realities of living with clinical depression. In this aim, it succeeds admirably. The Memory of Light serves as a demonstration of just how subtle and sophisticated the handling of adolescent psychology can be in the hands of a skilled young adult author.
© 2016 Brett Karlan
Brett Karlan is a graduate student in Philosophy at Princeton University.