Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Harm - A Memoir of Dark, Glorious Days

by Stephanie Luke
Wakefield Press, 2000

What we're looking at here is a late-era grunge novel about schizophrenia. It's a really good in-your-face read. It leaves most stories that tackle mental illness for dead, because it puts you right there in the middle of a real-life schizoid meltdown. This is madness with a capital M. The sort of gothic ye-olde madness that could get you burned at the stake.

Anna and Sarah are a Sydney lesbian couple who flee to Adelaide to be away from Anna's extremly nasty North Shore family (they don't believe she's gay). They rent a place at Henley Beach and Anna gets a job at a movie theatre. Unfortunately Adelaide is a bit isolating and people stare at them in the supermarket. Anna starts to withdraw from the world into the comforts of her own head.

The melody lines of classical music begin to talk to her. She starts to think that the number plates on cars hold some code she needs to crack. Birds and window washers become supernatural forces. Movies become direct references to her daily life. She starts following strangers around like they are agents from a secret society. She's always surprised when she gets it wrong, but decides that it must just be another initiation that she has to pass.

Nobody really has any idea what to do about all this, and her madness quickly affects their own mental health. Her friend Jacob is actually envious of her heightened experience. At one point Anna is basically raped (is there such a thing as consenting rape?) by a stranger on the highway. This leads her to the mental hospital where the story continues, one excrutiating scene after another.

This is a true story, but is not simply a first person memoir. Instead the story is broken up into polished chapters told by either Anna, Sarah, Jacob or Lucy. This very clever tactic allows for multiple interpretations of the same event, and reveals the suffering of those around her, particularly the impossibly loyal Sarah.

This was obviously a cathartic novel and it will be a cathartic experience for many readers. For the rest of us however this will be subtly disturbing. Four stars.

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