Reflections on a most intriguing Booker nominee – The Wake

6898212431_742cf14ae7_zSo the Booker Prize Longlist for 2014 was announced this week and, as much as I like to think that this is a list that does not hold quite the same seal of approval and impact that it once had for me I must confess that I am a sucker for these lists all the same. Generally, over time, I do manage to read more more than a few of the long and or short listed titles, and in doing so, I am invariably exposed to authors I might not have otherwise read. I am not likely to radically alter my looming to be read list just to have a go at a few of these titles in advance, but I did want to take a moment to look back on the most unlikely contender and, as it happens, the only one of these books that I have already read. The Guardian review that brought this title to my attention was so deeply intriguing I just had to read it as soon as possible. I have only just learned that it was a crowd sourced project, a factor that makes its appearance on the Booker Longlist that much more, shall we say, against the norm.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is an historical novel set in the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings from the perspective of the very ordinary and simple farm and townspeople who were watching the world they knew turned upside down by a foreign invader. The magic of this amazing tale comes through a very creative and effective use of language. It is written entirely in a shadow tongue designed to evoke the feel and mindset of Old English while retaining accessibility for those of us who are not OE scholars. It may sound like a gimmick but the approach actually affords a unique immersive experience.

WakeKingsnorth relies on much authentic vocabulary without being unnecessarily rigid, while recreating the syntax and common spellings of Old English (using only the letters in use at the time). As a reader it takes a while to develop a feel for the language. At the beginning I found myself translating the directly in my head, the way I do with my rudimentary French, but soon that process fell away. It helped when I discovered that there was a most illuminating author’s note on the reasons for his approach to creating this language and I would suggest that a reader review this early on. I read the book on a Kindle as that was the only edition readily available in Canada at the time so I did not realize the supplementary sections, glossary and extensive bibliography existed until I was well into the book!

What takes this small novel beyond a purely literary or historical exercise is the skill with which Kingsnorth brings his chosen narrator to life. Buccmaster of Holland, is a proud socman or freeman landholder, who leads a small band of self-styled greenmen in guerilla warfare against the Norman invaders. They make for a rather motley crew and our leader is no Hollywood inspired superhero. As the tale unfolds we become increasingly aware that this coarse, paranoid, prejudiced man is clinging to a deeply superstitious tradition that was on its way to being replaced by Christianity long before the French arrived. We find ourselves bound to an increasingly delusional man with dark secrets of his own. Kingsnorth himself describes this novel (his first) as a post-apocalyptic tale set 1000 years in the past. Of course it also has strong echoes in the vast number of occupations and conflicts, large and small, that continue to haunt communities and cultures throughout the world today.

I first read this novel three months ago and loved it. However I look back on it with some measure of discomfort as I now continue to come to terms with the fall out of from a serious manic episode. In the leadership role I held at my workplace I became increasingly stressed under mounting pressure and, although I can’t remember, I must have seemed erratic, irritable and well, unstable. The truth of madness, is that you cannot see it from inside. For a long time you may sense that something is wrong but in the end you lose all insight and judgement. The narrator who guides us though The Wake, is a complex troubled character, but given his challenges and his panic at seeing his world – on the fundamentally economic and spiritual level – slipping out of his grasp, his sanity is at stake. I cannot imagine I would have fared any better.

Literary prescription: The Sound of Things Falling

I am now a few weeks beyond the significant manic episode that has ground my life and work to a halt and precipitated a sudden crash into depression, anger and frustration. The crisis did not happen overnight and the healing will take time but I feel some measure of relief that my ability to lose myself in a book has been returning. Some additional anti-anxiety meds are helping too but I am trying to remain open to literary whims – reviews, suggestions from readers I respect, stray quotes that catch my attention. It seems to be critical medicine for me.

Fortunately there is also that wellspring of rewarding fictional riches, The International Impac Dublin Literary Award. Each year nominations are commissioned from public libraries around the world to create an extensive longlist from which a shortlist of 10 titles is ultimately drawn. It is inevitable that works in translation tend to feature prominently both  in the shortlist and among the archive of winners. Purists can argue over the Booker all they want, this is the award I watch.

winner_slide_2014This year’s winner, just announced in June, is The Sounds of Things Falling by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Canadian Anne McLean. This book had been waiting on my ereader for some time, but in light of its recent honour, I thought it might be time for a closer look. A few pages in and I was hooked. Billed as a literary thriller I was expecting a perhaps an entertaining diversion from my own troubles but in truth I soon found myself  deep in a remarkably intimate account of the impact that traumatic experiences have on those directly effected and those around them in ways we often are powerless to predict or prevent. Whether the trauma results from actions chosen or events over which an individual has little or no control the fallout over days, month and years can lead to fateful decisions, ruptured relationships and deep wounds. At the core of this novel are two strangers, brought together through an act of violence who find temporary refuge in a sharing their own experiences of coming of age in Bogota at the height of the drug fueled wars of the 1970 and 80s.

Personally, as I struggle to make sense of the pressures, stresses and events that collaborated to make such a mess of my recent months, it is difficult not to vacillate between anger and regret. Although I know that mood disorders play havoc from the inside out and that the person who is suffering knows something is wrong, they may be slow or even unable to define the nature of the condition, and most certainly incapable of stopping it on a dime. Playing the “if only” card serves no significant benefit. As Vasquez’s narrator Antonio muses as he sets to record the experiences he wishes to share:

“There is no more disastrous mania, no more dangerous whim than the speculation over roads not taken.”

I was able to lose myself in this novel but it did not serve as quite the distraction I expected from a “literary thriller”. There was a disturbing real world resonance that I could not have anticipated. The Sounds of Things Falling is more than simply a title, it is an experience repeated and echoed throughout the novel. From a airshow stunt gone terribly wrong, to a fatal drive by shooting, to the devastating crash of a jetliner. Because a key character was a pilot, de Saint-Exupéry‘s The Little Prince also features as a beloved childhood tale. It was disturbing to imagine the little prince asking the pilot if he also fell out of the sky when bodies were literally falling out of the sky as Malaysia Airlines MH17 exploded over a disputed region of the Ukraine.

Trauma, small and personal or wide-reaching and global and all shades in between have always marked human existence. It divides and unites us in large and small ways. the complexity of that experience is, for me, one of the primary themes explored in this worthy literary award winner.

Negotiating tangled emotions

The aftermath of madness leaves its own measure of grief.  Because the manic end of the bipolar experience is by nature expansive, the episode is rarely one that occurs in isolation. At the very least, strange, anxious and pressured calls are made. Sometimes to strangers. Sometimes to those you know. Friends and families may observe the cracks as they start to spread. The first tremors may be intermittent. They can look like occasional or periodic moments of stress – the bad days anyone can have. When things start to spiral out of control I suspect it is already too late. For the person inside the experience, the pressure, the racing thoughts, the inability to sleep or find relief from the escalating crisis becomes a space in which all perspective is lost.

And generally there is damage.

At the most severe there can be serious physical harm, violence toward the self or others. More typically major manic episodes impact relationships, bank accounts or jobs, sometimes beyond repair. Yet in the middle of it all is a person who is very ill, who will need time to recover physically and emotionally for whom there is frequently very little understanding or sympathy. Especially when they are isolated.

14629062611_de5f459467_zAs I struggle to cope with the rotating cycles of sadness, embarrassment, anger and fear following my recent breakdown I am aware that because no one from my workplace has contacted me, no one has any idea how severely ill I have been. They just remember the last days of fractured functioning before I was finally able to get away from the office. Four weeks later I am exhausted, still unable to regulate my sleep and uncomfortable driving beyond my immediate neighbourhood. When I am deemed well enough to return to work my employers will be able to imagine this “illness” was all a convenient ruse and I have reason to believe it will be held against me. The nine years I worked there and the senior management position I held under increasingly toxic work conditions will mean nothing because it was always an environment in which your work was never acknowledged or appreciated. My mistake was to care enough to stay because I believed in the work we were doing.

The emotional roller coaster is the worst. It is interfering with the comfort and enjoyment I have always found in reading and photography. It finds me moaning and wallowing in self pity when I’m not trying to push grief and anger behind me. And my young adult kids and 80 year-old mother deserve a break from having to listen to it all.

And I would much rather be blogging about books and ideas, not the black heartache of depression.

Stubbornly reading through a breakdown

With sincere apologies to David Mitchell, I have been reading myself through the crest and early weeks of the fall of a mental health crisis with his novel The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Probably not fair to him or me. I am not a speed reader but I can7141642 generally manage 4-5 books a month. I embarked on this voyage with the Guardian Reading Group in early June and finally closed the last page today.

I know that reviews were mixed when this book was published in 2010 but I would not suggest this as a companion for a manic episode. It was not bad or entirely uninteresting (though I confess I preferred the graphic turn of the 18th century medically graphic scenes, shades of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin novels where you have to wonder how anyone survived the surgical interventions, let alone the nautical warfare). Although the era and setting of this historical – and for Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame –  remarkably straighforward tale I think it could have been much more coherent and tightly paced.

I think that I stuck to this book more as a testament to myself that I could pull myself through this period of turmoil which has left me depressed, angry and confused as I sit on sick leave and wonder if my career is in shambles. I was afraid that if I stopped reading, even with the idea that I might return at a later date, I would be giving in to the mass of tangled emotions that my breakdown has left me struggling with. Some level of normalcy has to be maintained and, at this time it has meant reading.

So where now? Something shorter, something magical I should think.

Reining in the manic mind

Manic thinking is big thinking. Massive. As mania progresses it becomes impossible not to become overwhelmed by the hugeness of the circumstances you perceive them. It is not unusual to feel caught up in the frantic spin of galaxies, astronomical or closer to home. Thinking is logical but as speeds ramp up, your judgements and interpretations can slide off the rails. The first time I was seriously ill, back in my 30s, I am sure there were some very grounded personal and even hormonal factors at play but, in the spectacular end I was experiencing definite delusions.

They say you mercifully forget those moments of rambling, crazed phone calls, strange behaviours. The kids crying in their rooms. The morning the ambulance finally arrives. I have not been blessed by such amnesiac elements.

With my recent breakdown, the stressors building to the moment of collapse were situational, profound and prolonged. They built over months, a year maybe. Then the roller coaster crested and the decline came on rapidly. And I was the last to notice. My workplace had been through a period of turmoil but as we tried to move forward I became increasingly obsessed by the massiveness of the work that I felt needed to be done to pull the agency together and make up for years of underfunding and failure to plan for the future.

My anxieties may not have been entirely misplaced. But I could no longer stop and see the good, to measure the necessity to take one step at a time and realize that moving forward is a process, not an emergency. I was so consumed with the forest that I lost sight of the trees.

Rainy day solitudeAs I am beginning to heal I am aware that I am still prone to a significant measure of massive thinking but I am also starting to doubt myself. I find myself wondering if the entire nightmare was of my own making. I have to remember that I was not the only staff member to express serious concerns, and that everyonewas impacted by the stress. One co-worker has battled stomach ulcers, another who is never ill was laid low by the flu for weeks.

I almost lost my sanity.

Terrors, somewhere inside we all have them

I tend to think of myself as someone who treasures solitude, perhaps because my normal work world and home context, offer scant moments when I am ever truly alone. Now I suddenly find myself in a situation where I am recovering from a near breakdown, unable to travel far without being overcome by fatigue and vertigo and, so it seems, my work colleagues are under instruction to refrain from all contact with me.

Now if I was off work due to some tangible medical ailment, oh you know, a physical injury or illness or some other condition necessitating tests, scans and possible surgery, I would be able to expect calls, cards, hospital visits. Instead I am in a virtual isolation chamber. I have a mental illness and suddenly the years of highly productive contributions I have provided to my employers seem to have been rendered null and void. A crushing ball of loneliness to which I am entirely unaccustomed sits in the pit of my stomach. Would anyone even notice if I failed to return save for the mass of paper I left behind on my desk?

One might wonder how the workmates of the unnamed narrator of Seven Terrors made sense of his failure to return to the office when, after the dissolution of his marriage, he took to his bed and refused to emerge from the confines of his bedroom for nine long months. That is exactly where this dark gothic tale by the Bosnian author Selvedin Avdic begins.seventerrorsfrontcover_50acc7efa1d7c_250x800r

Long listed for the brilliant Impac Dublin Award for 2014, I read this book a few months back but I find its haunting mystery and curious endnotes continue to resonate with my present frame of mind. Translated by Coral Petkovich and published by Istros Books in 2012 (re-released in 2018 with an introduction by Nicholas Lezard), it is the sudden visit from the daughter of a former colleague that drags our apparent hero from his self imposed exile. She beseeches him to help her locate her father who has been missing for years and intrigued, perhaps more by the young lady than any curiousity about his friend’s fate, he agrees. Thus he embarks on a most dingy and disorienting detective adventure.

Set in 2005, the war in Bosnia a decade earlier is a constant presence throughout the book. Although few events are recounted directly; the memories, mythologies and  human losses linger in the bitter winter wind, seep through cracks in the plaster and creep across the floorboards. With a clear nod to Borges, Kafka and others this dark tale is an entirely contemporary fantasy. Yet as the investigations turn to the missing journalist’s interest in coal miners, Bosnian mythology begins to play a strange role and our narrator’s sanity (already questionable one might argue from his bedsit starting point) becomes increasingly  ungrounded; even as he tries to make sense of himself and the truth behind the dissolution of his marriage.

It is strange how magic, reality, fantasy and fact can mingle in literature – and for this purpose I am excluding fiction that fits explicitly into fantasy and horror genres where such mutability is a given – but capital “L” Literature, which being a bit of a bookish geek is my typical but not exclusive, terrain. Yet in real life, that life we are forced to venture into outside the covers of a book, there seems to be some caveat on TRUTH as if that was even an objective possibility. And what is crazy anyway? When I work with a survivor of brain injury I can sense the difference between psychosis and confabulation and the inability to lay down new episodic memories. But if, under exceptional professional stress, I became agitated, overworked and frustrated is my sanity at stake? I heard no voices, had no visions but I sure was moody and irritated.

I should think that my fictional Bosnian friend burying himself in his bedsheets for nine months was in worse shape than I but as a character he is a fascinating narrator to spend time with. Or so I thought. And obviously enough people agreed to nominate Seven Terrors for the Impac Dublin Award which draws its nominations from the selections of a wide range of international libraries.

As I agonize over my eventual return to the workplace following this recent breakdown I find myself returning to the most fascinating series of footnotes and endnotes that make this Bosnian novelist’s slim volume so extraordinary. Among those notes is an actual list of seven terrors and, for those of us who are inclined to anxiety, blank pages so that you can helpfully add some more of your own. I will leave you with his seventh:

7. Fear of loneliness and darkness
Better to write and describe it like this – fear of                                                           loneliness or darkness. It’s all the same, they both devour.

Turn on the light and read this book.

What lies ahead?

Along the forest trailI took this photo almost a month ago. This trail near my home runs up and down along a steep embankment above a major river running through the large modern city I call home. It exists as an oasis of mountain magic lingering east of the Rocky Mountains. Today I could not possibly negotiate my way over the ubiquitous tangles of roots that emerge without warning on such forested trails. Although my health improves every day, I am stunned by how devastating the process of recovering from the brink of a full manic break has been on my ability maintain any degree of physical equilibrium. At the worst I was toppling over at a moment’s notice and hobbling along after my 24 year-old son as if I was in my 80s or 90s. This morning I actually managed a 10 block walk to Starbucks on my own. I no longer lose my balance when I turn my head and could even stoop to photograph a few renegade alley flowers along the way. Maybe I will even make serious headway in the novel I was reading before I crashed a few weeks ago.

But the question then begins to take on a more critical long turn.

What lies ahead?

And is this a path I am prepared to commit to knowing that the dysfunctional elements that ultimately contributed to my break down are deeply embedded into the structure of the work environment that I am, at this time, expected to return?

If I hated my job, the answer would be simple. But for nine years I loved my work, looked forward to the challenge, cared deeply for the cause, the clients, my co-workers and community colleagues. However, sometimes hard work and achievements mean little if the last impression you leave is of someone who is over tired, over worked and processing at lightening speed. You are assumed to be crazy, not ill. And labels once granted still await even once you cross the bridge to recovery.