Thursday, May 17, 2007

Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan

Clare Allan's Poppy Shakespeare is one strange book. It received rave reviews when it came out in hardback last year, was much-hyped all around, and I've been reading all about it for ages, and it still managed to be nothing like what I had expected. Part of that, of course, is that it hasn't got much precedent. I've read of this book compared to works by authors as divergent as Chaucer and Ken Kesey, and though we've got the perspective of a mad girl, The Bell Jar this ain't. No, the one adjective applied over and over to this book is "original" and it's a very fitting one.

Poppy Shakespeare is a comedic social commentary employing elements of both satire and the fantastic. This is the story of N, a patient at the Dorothy Fish, a day centre in a fictional psychiatric hospital in North London. The thing is, however, that N and co-patients have no desire to be discharged. So isolated from mainstream society (the divide represent by Borderline Road which runs around the hospital like a moat) and so comfortable within their place in a rather absurd system, they scheme to display more symptoms and up their diagnoses. The wrench into this system arrives in the form of Poppy Shakespeare, a rather stroppy but decidedly normal woman who has been admitted to the Dorothy Fish against her will. Her claims of mental soundness are interpreted as a reluctance to confront her problems. When she tries to engage a lawyer to help her out of her predicament, she finds she is only eligible for legal aid if she is diagnosed as mentally ill. The spiral goes downward from there, as told by N who watched it happen, or perhaps was more culpable than she might let on.

The object of Allan's satire is the "results-oriented" approach which has been employed in Britain during recent years toward state services such as education, social services, and mental health. Patients at the Dorothy Fish begin to be randomly discharged so that the hospital can boast high rates of curing-- even if the cure usually leads to the patients' suicide. And none of this sounds like very funny stuff, but it is. This is partly because of N's perspective and her language--blunt, colloquial, playful and true to her character. Allan doesn't shy away from the sordid, but turns it all the way on its head until it becomes a joke. And what is comedy if not blurring the line which is sanity, but then the message is ever-present, just below the humour. This is a novel which is doing many things.

It's not easy, however. When I finished it I saw its worth, and Allan is clearly a spectacular writer, but the novel wasn't altogether enjoyable to read. And that's not just because of the bleak subject matter (actually there is very little bleakness here). Though N's voice was perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this book, it went on long sometimes. Though typical of the character, her narrative takes a long time to get on track. Her perspective is not capable of percieving depth of character, though at times this is just the point-- that in such a system, depth gets lost. And I do get the feeling that with any such criticism of this book, I could find a way to explain what Allan is doing. Here is a novel that is more "interesting" than "good", but I don't mean that in an altogether bad way. Though I do feel that the novel could have benefitted with a little more editing, some tightening up, on the whole Clare Allan has successfully realized her vision. A vision of a part of society most of us are not usually privy to, and for that alone, I think, it's worth a look.