Monday, 1 April 2013

Review: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Keysen

In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she'd never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele -- Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles -- as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Kaysen's memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a "parallel universe" set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.
I haven’t read a story like this one for a while, but I was intrigued when I heard about it. When I first found it in my local bookshop, I was quite surprised at the length of it; at just over 100 pages it was a very quick read and I finished it in a few hours. My instinctive reaction when I picked it up was a bit flat, but I still read it with vigour and I did enjoy the story it was telling. It’s not told in chapters as such, but more like a series of short essays that either details a character, event, or theory that exists outside of the story. Keysen presents some interesting points about the nature of both the diagnosis of her illness and ‘sanity’ in general, especially in the concept of “mind vs brain” which I found particularly interesting. There is a good contrast between so many “parallel worlds” – a key yet subtle underlying theme throughout the book, which is executed very well. There is the contrast of patients with staff; hospital with outside world; sane with insane.
The parts I was a little disappointed with were concerned mainly with the length. Although I do generally prefer books that are thicker, I don’t have a problem with short ones so long as they reach a certain level of meatiness and depth. Girl, Interrupted didn’t really feel as though it hit this level for me. If there had been a little more depth to the characters, to the time devoted to the “narrative” rather than the “theories”, then I think I would have enjoyed its style more. The “theory” sections, in which Keysen questions diagnoses and perception of mental illness, is certainly enlightening. And they do work as separate from the main narrative, as I think if the two had been interspersed, it would have diluted the power of each and perhaps alienated the reader. However, there seems so much of both in such a short book, that it can be easy for the two to equally overwhelm.

Saying that, I did enjoy Girl, Interrupted and would read it again. It’s a quick read, but that’s nice in its own way: it’s been a while since I’ve had a book at the kind of length to read in one, letting the story flow naturally and not have to necessarily stop for anything that would interrupt it. I also liked how the title comes from the painting Girl, Interrupted at her Music. That’s a nice extra layer that helps to sum everything up well at the end.

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