The beauty of literature is how it exposes elements of the human condition that needs to be discussed by society. A well-crafted novel passed between good friends is still an effective means of creating discourse in our society. Three books have been published in the past year that deal with the common theme of depression and malaise. While I have personal reasons for writing this piece with a certain friend in mind, I have no doubt that others will find the mention of these three books together enlightening.
Angie Abdou’s Between
I hope I am not stealing any wind from Angie Abdou’s sails by connecting these three novels in this piece. She was the one who mention the connection while on tour with her novel Between. In it, her protagonist Vero finds herself thrust into the role of mother and wife while trying live in the modern age.
Vero Nanton’s life has been hijacked, and she hates herself for being surprised. Every woman she knows told her this would happen – motherhood would change everything – but either she didn’t hear them (because her fevered response to the biological imperative to procreate had drawn all power away from her ears and redeployed it to more biologically useful parts of her body), or she paid these naysayers no heed because, simply, she believed that she and Shane would be different (because they had before, on so many counts, been exactly that – different). For whatever reason, Vero did not process the warnings that female friends and family members, generously or otherwise, fired her way the moment she stepped over the threshold of thirty-five and displayed the usual symptoms of baby fever, intensified (as they so often are) by delayed onset.
“You want a career,” Cheryl, Vero’s mother, said when she saw Vero turning doe-eyed over new babies. “Women of your generation don’t have to do all that nose wiping and gah-gah-ing. Thanks to us. Be whatever you want.” Cheryl had stepped out of parenting somewhere around Vero’s thirteenth year, choosing instead to focus her energy on what she called her womyn’s group. The closest Cheryl got to mothering was to ask Vero to join her and a circle of friends in some asanas or a heated discussion of The Golden Notebook. Vero, of course, did not.
Abdou has documented a section of angst common in our society here yet somehow people feel alone with this type of grief. Between should be the starting points of many conversations people who share the feelings that Vero has and the greater understanding of sadness.
Vero tries. Nobody can say that she does not try. One must try. She pulls herself from bed. You need some movement, Cheryl would say. An object at rest stays at rest. Lethargy breeds lethargy. With Cheryl’s voice pushing her forward, Vero drags herself down to the Bikram studio, determined to sweat her way out of her funk. She will sweat until she is Vero again. She will sweat until her old life fits, until once again she is a pharmacist’s wife who gets paid to fix engineers’ grammar.
But there is no peace at the Bikram studio. Dreadlocks, placards, and ripped jeans fill the sidewalk, barring her way. “SWEAT!” screams one half of the crowd. “KILLS!” replies the other. Vero raises her hands to her face. Her skin feels real, smooth at the cheek, rough at the dry skin of her lips, three sharp hairs unplucked at her chin. She’s awake?
Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows
Miriam Toews has put some serious personal touches in this story of two sisters; Elfrieda and Yoliandi. One would think that Elf would be happy with her great career and her great marriage but she wants to die. And this confounds Yoli has she makes frequent trips to the hospital to visit her sister after her latest suicide attempt.
Elfrieda has a fresh cut just above her left eyebrow. There are seven stiches holding her forehead together. The stiches are black and stiff and the ends pole out of her head like little antennae. I asked her how she got that cut and she told me that she fell in the washroom. Who knows if that’s true or false. We are women in our forties now. Much has happened and not happened. Elf said that in order for her to open her packages of pills – the ones given to her by the nurses – she would need a pair of scissors. Fat lie. I told her that I knew she wasn’t interested in taking the pills anyway, unless they were of such a volume that their combined effect would make her heart seize, so why would she need a pair of scissors to open the package? Also, she could use her hands to tear it open. But she won’t risk injuring her hands.
Elfrieda’s a concert pianist. When we were kids she would occasionally let me be her page-turner for the fast pieces that she hadn’t memorized. Page turning is a particular art. I had to be just ahead of her in the music and move like a snake when I turned the page so there was no crinkling and no sticking and no thwapping. Her words. She made me practise over and over, her ear two inches from the page, listening. Heard it! she’d say. And I’d have to do it again unitl she was satisfied that I hadn’t made the slightest sound. I liked the idea of being ahead of her in something. I took real pride in creating a seamless passage for her from one page and if I was too early or too late Elfrieda would stop playing and howl. The last measure! she’d say. Only at the last measure! Then her arms and head would crash onto the keys and she’d hold her foot on the sustaining pedal so that her suffering would resonate eerily throughout the house.
Toews has brilliantly described the anguish of one person trying to understand a sadness of another person here in very simple terms. We can feel the frustration of Yoli as she tries to deal with not only her sister but the rest of her family during this crisis.
The last time my sister tried to kill herself was by slowly evaporating into space. It was a furtive attempt to disappear by starving herself to death. My mom phoned me in Toronto and told me that Elf wasn’t eating and she was begging her and Nic not to call a doctor. They were desperate. Would I come? I went directly from the airport to Elf’s bedroom and knelt by her side. She asked me what I was doing there. I told her I was there to call a doctor. Mom might have made a promise not to call a doctor but I hadn’t. Our mother stayed in the dining room. She had her back to us. She couldn’t support one daughter’s idea over the other daughter’s idea, like any good mother, so she removed herself from the proceedings. I’m calling, I said. I’m sorry. Elf pleaded with me not to. She implored me. She put her hands together in supplication and begged. She promised to eat. Our mother stayed sitting in the dining room table. I told Elf the ambulance was on its way. The screen door was open and we could smell the lilacs. I won’t go, said Elf. You have to, I said. She called to our mom. Please tell her I won’t go. Our mother said nothing. She didn’t turn around. Please, said Elf. Please! She used what little strength she had left to give me the finger as the paramedics leaded her into the back of the ambulance.
Alison Pick’s Between Gods
Noted poet and novelist Alison Pick bares her soul completely in her non-fiction memoir Between Gods. While in her early thirties and being engaged to be married, she struggled with depression. It was during that period that she began to research her Jewish roots and their hardships in before and during the Second World War. She felt compelled that in order to understand her family’s history, she herself must embrace the Jewish faith. This book document’s her path of discovery and learning.
My grandmother never liked babies. As least, this is how the story goes. We have a picture of Dad as a small boy sitting on her knee. She is wearing a blue silk blouse and large pearl-drop earrings, holding a thin cigarette loosely between her manicured fingers. She has just learned that her parents have been murdered. She stares off into the distance. It is as though the child her lap – my father – has been placed there by a stranger, or belongs to someone else entirely.
Granny covered her depression with words. Armed with a cocktail and a cigarette, she made herself the centre of any group. She knew history, politics, opera, literature. If anyone else tried to speak, Granny talked right over them.
At the end of our summers with her when I was a child, she would stand in the doorway in her pale blue and white checked Hermes dressing gown, crying as my father pulled our family station wagon down the long driveway. She was terrified of being left alone.
During the first crippling depression I suffered in my early twenties, I called her at the condominium in Florida where she wintered. “I’m starting to think life is inherently painful,” I told her.
I remember the uncharacteristic silence. I could hear the ice cubes clinking in her rye and then the sharp inhale on her cigarette. From farther behind her came the muffled sound of waves crashing on Longboat Key. Her silence lengthened. For once, she was searching for words.
When she finally spoke, I was relieved to hear her glamorous European accent; relieved she was still there at the other end of the line at all.
“Yes,” she said simply. “You’re right.”
Even though this book is a work of non-fiction, Pick adds a sense of literary style to her thoughts and emotions here. The fact that is able to open up about her feelings – especially her sadness and her frustrations – gives insight to those emotions and any reader can feel they are not alone with their angst.
Writing and depression feel unrelated to me, like stars in separate constellations. When I’m in the throes of the darkness, I never think to draw a line between the two. And when I’m feeling sunny, despite knowing the correlation – that artists of all stripes are more depressed than the general population, that a higher percentage will take their own lives- the relationship seems intellectual, abstract.
In certain historical periods, conversations about melancholia emphasized creativity over depression. And it’s true that at the start of any project, during the process of generation, I am often flooded with the bad blood. Yet, paradoxically, the act of writing also feels like an island to rest on, an oasis of hours, even a single hour, in which I experience pleasure. And it occurs to me that the relief I experience when writing is not just about holding the darkness at bay but about ordering it, controlling it. As a writer, I can take the horrors of the Holocaust – for example – and place them within the strictures of plot, character, tension. I can render them believable, and imbue them with a moment of redemption – not in terms of the outcome of the story but in terms of narrative tension. Ah. This is how it ends. And we close the book and set it aside, satisfied.
Maybe writing fiction serves a dual function: letting the author excavate her psyche while at the same time functioning as a kind of psychic shield. A writer digs up the contents of her unconscious mind, and then attributes it to someone else – not to a family member or friend, mind you, but to a character. Which is to say, someone who does not even exist, someone who comes from the imagination entirely.
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Literature helps bring forth elements of the human condition that need discussing. And these topics are not just quick discussions to be had but need to be thought out and considered. Between, All My Puny Sorrows, and Between Gods are brilliant books written by brilliant authors who know how to craft concepts into a story form to bring ideas out to the world. These are books that deserved not only to be read but to be savoured.
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