A Note in Music, by Rosamond Lehmann

In her introduction, Janet Watts calls this novel from 1930 “sombre in colour and mood.” I agree, and yet, like its protagonist, the unprepossessing middle-aged housewife, Grace, there is something about it that attracts and holds me, almost I might say enchants me.

Grace's existence in a provincial town in northern England is humdrum indeed. She has Annie to do the housework and cooking, so there is little for her to do all day while her husband Tom is at the office. She lumbers along, thinking that “Nothing mattered, nothing would ever happen for her again.” She has only one friend, Nora, who occasionally drops by to take her for a drive. Tom, himself, has no friends, aside from some people he goes fishing or plays golf with on weekends. Tom's goal in life is to keep everything “comfortable and jolly”, but Grace does not have even such a slight ambition.

Nora has left behind her gay, debutante years to keep house for her morose husband, Gerry, and their two rowdy boys. She possesses all the vitality that Grace lacks, but even Nora sometimes longs for “rest from this perpetual crumbling of the edges, this shredding out of one's personality upon minute obligations and responsibilities. She wanted, even for a few moments, to feel her own identity peacefully floating apart from them all.”

The two couples' lives are upended when handsome, cosmopolitan, young Hugh Miller comes to town to try his luck working for his uncle who owns the firm where Tom works. His sister briefly joins him; she had known Nora in the old days but has managed to retain her sophisticated lifestyle. This bright twosome bring home to Grace, Tom, Nora and Gerry just how dull their lives are.

As I started the book I could not imagine that people could lead such unexamined lives. But Lehmann gently teases out what is good in them, their small wounds and disappointments. We see Nora coaxing Gerry back from depression, Grace unselfconsciously entertaining the dazzling Hugh. We hear Gerry's thoughts, and it is the beauty of the sentences that raise all this above the mundane: “in the bitter times, he whispered to himself, looking with a faint hope to the years ahead: Calm of mind, all passion spent. But in the worse he knew that he would make a desert around him and call it peace.”

Even Hugh, who seems to lead such a charmed life, suffers his own grief and comes to realise his own shortcomings. I think it is his view of Grace that interests me and in turn interests me in her. Initially dismissing her as a frumpy older woman, he is charmed by her light touch, her sense of the ridiculous. He stays for tea and is unexpectedly drawn to Grace. Not romantically, this is a much more subtle connection, a fragile one. I think it is my curiosity about such an unusual relationship that draws me on.

And the power of Lehmann's prose. Here is Grace, remembering the beech woods of her childhood: “She went into the wood and saw the first wild flash of the bluebells. They ran away into the shadowy distance on every hand, flooding the ground with urgent blue—with a blue that cried like the sound of violins. She sat beneath the smooth, snake-striped, coiling branches of her chosen tree, and saw beneath her a creaming tide of primroses, clotting the mossy slopes, brimming in the hollows.”

Far from sombre, such sentences take me back to the woods above Robin Hood's Bay where the bluebells did indeed run away. This is a book about that stage of life when we realise our choices are narrowing, and we can't help but wonder if it's too late to change our way. I feel privileged to have been given access to the inner lives of these people, to have my perplexity cajoled into compassion.

The Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore

This new novel by Helen Dunmore provides what seems to me to be a realistic portrayal of life in Stalin's Russia. It takes place in Leningrad in 1952 where a young married couple is trying to live an ordinary life while navigating the treacherous currents of a society where everyone fears the arbitrary and violent Ministry of State Security. Andrei, a doctor, and Anna, a nursery school teacher, have no children of their own but include Anna's teen-aged brother Kolya in their family. The three of them are alone in the world, having barely survived the seige of Leningrad during World War II, which ended only nine years previously. Their quiet life is thrown into disarray when Andrei is called in to treat the son of Volkov, a high-ranking government official.

The details of the story, the conversations, the descriptions all convey the suspicion and fear that trickled through every action and interaction. When their neighbors complain about Kolya's piano playing, Andrei and Anna know how easily they can be denounced and limit Kolya's practicing. Both are committed to their work, but struggle to weigh its demands against the family's safety.

I'd previously read two books by Helen Dunmore, though not The Seige, her novel about the seige of Leningrad. She has clearly done a lot of research about the city and the period, but it sits lightly on the story, providing just enough context. My book club praised the story. We all cared about the characters from the start. I think Andrei's obvious integrity and compassion for the child at the center of his dilemma won us over.

We talked a lot about the title. It distracted some people, making them wonder who was going to betray whom. But in discussion we found many larger resonances of the idea, from Volkov's betrayal of his own humanity to Stalin's betrayal of the original ideals of Communism. There are also those who do not betray, the friends who help the beleaguered couple.

This is not a period I might have chosen to read about if my book club had not selected this book, but I'm glad I did. Experiencing the emotional climate of this repressive regime reminded me of Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout where a whispering campaign against a small town's grieving pastor takes him to the edge of the abyss. The outcome of Strout's book reminds me of what I value in our society. The outcome of Dunmore's book reminds me of what I value in people everywhere: integrity and loyalty.

David's Story, by Jill Sadowsky

Sadowsky has written a wrenching memoir of her son's mental illness, which was eventually diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. The film A Beautiful Mind, based on a true story, characterises the most common course of the disease: onset in young adulthood, auditory hallucinations, paranoid delusions, and social disfunction. It is not multiple personality disorder, now commonly know as dissociative identity disorder, but rather a disruption of cognitive processes. It is far more common than I thought; Sadowsky quotes a doctor saying “‘One in every hundred people in the world suffers from this illness at some time or other. More than a quarter of all hospital beds in the world are filled with patients who suffer from schizophrenia.'”

As a parent, my heart ached seeing the disease gradually take hold in their beautiful son in spite of the family's best efforts. Initially they were stymied by a lack of information, as Sadowsky and her husband battered themselves against the medical profession trying to get a diagnosis.

Still, the book is not as dark as I expected. There are many moments of joy and humor and family togetherness. There's a lot of love in this family. But Sadowsky's fear and worry for her son come through, as well as at times fear of him, what he might do in the grip of a delusion. I appreciate her honesty and openness. This is no saccharine after-school special. We are not spared her frustration at his limitations and failed attempts at independence or her weariness at having to go through it all again when he relapses or stops taking his medicine. Most difficult is her concern about her two daughters; not only were their parents distracted by their brother's needs, they could not bring friends home to a house made chaotic and were themselves sometimes targets of their brother's violence.

Most frustrating is the lack of support for the family. They were not given a diagnosis for years because the doctor was hesitant to diagnose someone so young as schizophrenic. Instead, the parents were openly blamed for causing their son's problems, either through neglect or malicious intent. Once he was diagnosed, the mental health professionals continued to blame the parents—in the face of overwhelming proof that parents cannot cause schizophrenia—and refused to offer any advice on how to deal with their depressed and sometimes violent son.

Through all the fear and anger and frustration, what is most apparent is the love, not just for this difficult and damaged boy, but between all members of the family. Sadowsky reminds us of the smart and generous child, the avid surfer that David had been. Her husband does not leave a difficult situation, as many do. The daughters complain, but in a supportive way.

Sadowsky did not begin to get answers or assistance until she discovered a support group. It was in Israel where she lives and conducted in Hebrew. She went on to found one for English speakers and continues to speak to parents and health professionals about her family's experience and what can be done to improve support for those suffering from schizophrenia and their families. She also works to erase the stigma associated with mental illness that hampered her family every step of the way.

The author sent me a copy of the book to review, knowing from this website that I share her goal of confronting social stigmas. I approached the book with caution. I knew there would be tears, and there were, but found comfort in the love binding this family together. I read the book all in one go, unable to pull myself away. I'm grateful to Sadowsky for giving us this authentic account and encourage everyone to read it and re-examine your ideas of mental illness. Check out her website for more resources for caregivers: http://www.jillsmentalhealthresources.wordpress.com

Best books I read in 2012

I tried (and failed) to limit my list to ten. Click on the link to go to the full blog post.

1. Absalom, Absalom, by William Faulkner

This astounding novel is the story of Thomas Sutpen, a man who came out of the West Virginia mountains with nothing to his name, arriving in Yoknapatawpha County in 1833 to build a fortune and carve out a plantation, expecting to found a dynasty. We learn about him indirectly, through the stories that are told to young Quentin Compson. Re-reading it now I admired the structure of the book.

2. Memory's Wake, by Derek Owens

In this extraordinary memoir, Owens delves into his mother's past, into the childhood memories that suddenly began to surface when his mother is in her fifties. While properly skeptical and examining the controversy around recovered memories, Owens comes to believe in the terrible abuse his mother, Judy, suffered at the hands of her mother. This woman, deserted by her husband and left with a detested five-year-old, takes out her frustrations on the child. Confronted later by Owens's father, she does not deny any of it. This powerful book deserves a wide audience. It is one I will never forget.

3. The Winner Names the Age: A Collection of Writings by Lillian Smith, Edited by Michelle Cliff

Lillian Smith (1897-1966) was a writer of extraordinary power and an activist who refused the roles pushed on women of her time. This collection of magazine articles, speeches, and letters from 1942 to her death speak directly to today. I have rarely read a more cogent diagnosis of where we have gone astray here in the U.S.

4. The Narrow Road to the Interior, by Kimiko Hahn

I read this deeply moving book three times and interpreted much of it differently each time. Hahn uses two Japanese forms for the poems in this book: tanka and zuihitsu. Most poets are familiar with tanka, though here Hahn presents them as a single line. Zuihitsu has no Western equivalent. It has been translated as &#8#8220;following the brush” or “stray notes expressing random thoughts”. Here the fragmentary nature and the energy of the work provide a particularly rich experience.

5. The Tale of Murasaki, by Liza Dalby

Very little is known about Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji. Genji, completed probably in 1021, is often considered to be the first novel. This fictionalized biography is almost a case study in how to write historical fiction. With this book I truly felt as though I was entering a different world every time I picked it up. Dalby has provided an exquisitely detailed view of life in the early 11th century.

6. Eventide, by Kent Haruf

The book starts slowly, gently. The aging McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, come up from the horse barn and wipe their feet before going in for a breakfast prepared by Victoria, a nineteen-year-old single mom they'd taken in a few years earlier. I treasured each chapter, each page. I was touched, recognising again the generosity most people demonstrate toward those around them, how gentle they can be with each other. This is a story about how we connect with each other and how painful it is when those connections are severed.

7. New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, by Colm Tóibín

When the title of this book was mentioned last week, the audience laughed uneasily, and Tóibín drily agreed that it was not the best marketing ploy. I, however, thinking immediately of Adrienne Rich's motherless children and my own struggles to wrench free of controlling parents, wanted to purchase it on the basis of the title alone. Luckily I enjoyed the entire book. For me, these essays accomplished the highest purposes of such writing: they made me want to reread authors whose work I know well; they pushed me to explore the work of authors new to me; and they gave me insights that I can use in my own work.

8. The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

I read this book twice, the first time for my book club. Tony Webster, retired, divorced, content with his unremarkable life, thinks back over his personal history, recounting episodes as he has always understood them. Then, the re-emergence of two friends from his past throws his understanding of those episodes into question. I actually enjoyed my second reading even more, going more slowly, seeing how each detail fit neatly into the whole. What a gem of a book!

9. Nothing to Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes

It's not a promising premise for a book: one man's fear of death. Yet Barnes' wit and learning kept me turning pages, nodding and chuckling.

10. Divisidero, by Michael Ondaatje

In this story of two sisters, Anna and Claire, what I find myself returning to again and again is Anna's quixotic effort to capture and preserve the past of a nearly-forgotten poet, Lucien Segura. A single life is short and buried in the flood of all the lives that come after and around it. You devote your life to accruing knowledge and experience. You expend considerable effort in shaping it into a coherent whole, and then you die and all of that is gone and no one really knows what it was like to be you.

11. Purity of Blood, by Arturo Pérez- Reverte

The Captain Alatriste series at first seemed to me a departure from Pérez- Reverte's other novels. These swashbuckling adventures about a hard-bitten swordsman during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century are narrated by íñigo Balboa—only thirteen in this story—who has been plucked from the streets of Madrid by Alatriste. The Captain may not say very much, but when danger looms, he is quick to pull his dagger and wrap his cloak around his arm. Although accustomed to killing, Alatriste has his own code. He is another Shane, a Jack Reacher, though perhaps with a harder heart.

12. The Cazalet Chronicle, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

These four books follow the members of a large family and their servants in and around the Home Place where William and Kitty collect their grown sons and their families during the summer holidays. This is not a costume drama but a psychological one. So completely is each person realised that I found myself absorbed by even the most commonplace worries. A delightful read.