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Book Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

The Muse

This was a pretty good book, the downside is that I felt it should have been even better.

The action of the story is divided between 1960s London and 1930s Spain.

We begin in London where we meet Odelle.  Odelle is an aspiring writer who has immigrated to London from the West Indies.  After a few unsatisfying years working in a shoe shop she gets a better job as a typist at a top art dealers.  Here she meets the enigmatic and charismatic Marjorie Quick.  The arrival of a mysterious painting upsets Quick and awakens Odelle’s curiosity about both the painting and Quick’s relation to it.  The story then jumps back to 1930s Spain on the eve of Civil War where we find out about the creation of the painting.

In 1930s rural Southern Spain we meet the Schloss family and their brother and sister Spanish servants Teresa and Isaac.  The Schloss family are parents Sarah and Harold and teenage daughter Olive, they are from a British and Austrian background and have just arrived in Spain.  There are a myriad of tensions in this household: Olive is attracted to Isaac and they share an ambition to become artists, Harold is conducting a secret affair that young Teresa accidentally discovers, beautiful and glamourous Sarah suffers from depression and possibly alcoholism, Teresa is drawn to Olive and is jealous of the attention Olive is giving her brother…and on top of all this Civil war is brewing…basically there is a lot going on!

This is quite a plot driven piece and it’s hard to say more without risking spoilers (which I don’t want to do as this is definitely worth reading for yourselves).  The Spanish plot is compelling and keeps you wanting to know what happens next.  But we keep jumping back to the 1960s which is a bit irritating as it is rather dull in comparison.  I don’t think Burton convinced me at any stage of the necessity for Odelle to be in this story, we don’t need her to reveal the 1930s action as the author can tell us that without Odelle discovering clues to what did or didn’t happen.  Odelle has potentially a good story of her own, coming to Britain, facing racism and struggle to establish herself, but this story does not really get room to breathe – if Burton wants to tell that story she should have given Odelle her own book and not tried to shoehorn her into to a story mainly about art and the Spanish Civil War.  Burton tries to imply that the stories of Olive and Odelle are linked as they are both creative young women struggling with their art in different times, but I think each story was strong enough to stand alone and the piece is weakened by trying to slot them together somehow.

I think Burton introduces an interesting situation in Spain with intriguing characters but doesn’t quite develop either characters or plot quite fully enough (I had a similar criticism of the Miniaturist, although I think The Muse is much better).  I felt the book could have been longer and more detailed (not something I often say as I am generally a fan of short books).  It is good, but felt a little rushed and underdone.  Jessie Burton is a good writer through and imaginative – I would definitely read more of her work, I just think she should be more ambitious, there were all the ingredients for a great epic tale here rather than just an enjoyable OK story.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Break Down by B. A. Paris

This is a great exciting read, hard to put down once you get into it.

The main character is Cass, she is a teacher living with her new husband in rural England.  One night she is driving home from work in a heavy storm after an end of term celebration with colleagues.  Against her husband’s strict advice she takes a short cut down a quiet lonely stretch of road close to her home.  She sees a car parked with a woman in it, she hesitates but doesn’t stop as the woman doesn’t indicate she is in trouble.  Has the woman broken down?  Is she unwell?  Or is she up to no good?!  Cass doesn’t know but is too nervous to stop in case it’s a trick, also it’s late and throwing it down with rain.  She just wants to get home and also feels a little guilty about fibbing to her husband about her route – if she stops and gets involved there’s more chance he might find out she lied to him.  So she goes home to bed.

The next day she is horrified to hear on the news that a young woman has been brutally murdered in the spot where she saw the woman parked.  Now is the moment to come forward and go to the police as a witness and own up to her husband.  But she doesn’t, she is overcome with guilt and shame, wondering if she could have save the woman, so she continues with the lie that she did not take that route home and quickly it feels too late to confess the truth.

After this incident Cass’ life begins to unravel.  The guilt and lies seem to drag her down, she becomes stressed and forgetful and starts to wonder if she is developing the Early Onset Dementia that killed her mother.  Around this time strange things begin to happen – she starts getting silent phone calls and sensing someone is watching her and believes someone has been in her house and moved things around while she has been out.  Is it the killer taunting her because he knows she is a potential witness or is it all part of her mental problems and possibly a serious illness?  We don’t know and nor does Cass!

I can’t say much more without getting into spoiler territory – so I will stop there with describing the plot.  I hope I have said enough to get you interested as this is certainly worth reading if you want something exciting and mysterious without being too challenging or gory.  This is my kind of thriller.

As to down sides, I did find Cass and her lifestyle a bit dull at times.  She is only in her early 30s but for ‘fun’ all she does is potter in the garden wearing her special gardening shoes, for a treat she might nip into the nearest market town for a coffee or to wander round the shops.  She and her husband are young and well off with a large inheritance from her mother as well as two professional salaries but their lifestyle reminds me of my late grandparents!  (Probably me just being judgemental because I am such a trendy urbanite myself).  With reflection though I think her slightly dull character and lifestyle work for the plot, and they make sense as she was a carer for her sick mother from her teens to around 30 so probably never had chance to develop her own interests or find an circle of exciting, varied friends.  A wild, flamboyant character would probably have felt a bit much with the dramatic plot and Cass is actually a nice source of calm at the centre of things.

Another slight issue I had was that the climax seems to arrive in a bit of a rushed manner…but that is possibly just because I was turning the pages so fast when I was so eager to find out what was going to happen!  Occasionally I also felt the characters behaviour didn’t quite ring true, though this may have been deliberate from the author as we were seeing the plot from Cass’ point of view and a lot of the time she wasn’t thinking clearly and perhaps not reporting things accurately to us the reader.

Highly recommended.  I’m looking forward to reading more from B. A. Paris.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This book has an interesting style.  It is fiction but is written as if it is true crime with the text made up primarily of witness accounts and trial documents and reports.  The crime in question is the murder of a Scottish crofter and his young son and daughter, the criminal is one of his neighbours, a 17-year-old boy, Roderick Macrae.  It is set in 1869 in the Highlands of Scotland.

Most of the book is an account written by Roderick (who freely admits his guilt) of the circumstances leading up to his crime.  It makes fascinating reading, not just because of the crime, but because of the picture it paints of life as a 19th century crofter.  People living as peasants long after the industrial revolution had swept the rest of the country.

The story also offers an element of mystery.  Not as to who did the crime, as that is pretty clear, but why.  Because he is so open about his guilt Roderick seems a reliable witness but aspects of his account don’t tally with evidence found in court documents.  Did he really kill the family driven by family pride after a prolonged disagreement as he claims or did he actually have baser motives?

It is a very interesting and well written book.  Mysterious and offers a glimpse into a world very different from modern Britain.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Silence Between Breaths by Cath Staincliffe

I recently read The Silence Between Breaths By Cath Staincliffe. This book starts with Passengers boarding the 10.35 train from Manchester to London with ordinary people going about their ways. Amongst these people is Saheel, carrying a deadly rucksack….

This book was clever and harrowing and it tells us about Saheel’s family and what they too have to face with the knowledge of knowing the unthinkable.

It was an easy read but emotionally heartbreaking  and has been proven to be an excellent topic in any reading group.

Jagruti

Silence between breaths

 

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#LovetoRead

Over the weekend on November 5-6, libraries all over Britain took part in a twitter hash tag called #LoveToRead, which involved workers and customers to take a picture of themselves and upload it onto Twitter. As the event was organised by the BBC, they put on various events across the country, one being a talk about books with singer Cerys Matthews on BBC 6 Music and another being various BBC television personalities taking part in the event, well mainly the news team. The BBC website also had interviews with famous authors about what books shaped them over the years. Of course, Brent Libraries took part in the event and you can see a selection on the @BrentCulture twitter.

 

 

Kieran from Willesden Green Library’s favourite book is Christopher Hitchens ‘Diary of a Young Contrarian’ The book by the noted Vanity Fair writer and essayist explains his views in greater detail and details his life and politics.

Kieran from the Library at Willesden Green’s favourite book is Christopher Hitchens ‘Diary of a Young Contrarian’
The book by the noted Vanity Fair writer and essayist explains his views in greater detail and details his life and politics.

Adina, also from Willesden Green Library, chose Youth without Youth by Mircea Belidem, which was made into a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola starring Tim Roth

Adina, also from Willesden Green Library, chose Youth without Youth by Mircea Belidem, which was made into a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola starring Tim Roth

 

 

And finally (as we don’t want this to be all about selfies) Development Officer Kate chose two Charles Dickens classics that are not A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations; Nicholas Nickelby and A Tale of Two Cities

And finally (as we don’t want this to be all about selfies) Development Officer Kate chose two Charles Dickens classics that are not A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations; Nicholas Nickelby and A Tale of Two Cities

 

Well done to everyone in Brent who took part in the event during the weekend, it was a pleasure seeing the amazing variety of tastes and books on display there. The weekend shown that the library is a magical place in which anything can happen if you let your imagination wonder in it and choose a book that will make it flourish. The library is the only place (besides the internet, of course) where you do not have to pay for knowledge. Unlike the internet, in the library you can touch the knowledge, and no the iPad does not count!

I did not take part myself in the event due to intense selfie phobia but I do have a number of books that I would have liked to pose with if not for my various ailments. First is the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. It is famous in two ways: one for winning the Pulitzer Prize and secondly for being Seth Cohen’s favourite book in the O.C. The book centres on the two protagonists in the title over 16 years of their lives in pre and post war America. The book tackles a wide range of subjects from war, religion, immigration and sexual identity. Plus it’s about comics. Comics are fun.

The second is a book I discovered in highschool and would have loved to study but it’s of French origin and my French is bad. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas is a story about one man seeking revenge for the deeds his friends did to him years ago. He gets sent down and then discovers gold. Jackpot. Guess what happens next?

I must end it there but now I ask you: Did you take part in #LoveToRead? Do you have a book you love to pose with?

 

BY SOLMAZ

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Boy Nobody, Allen Zadoff

 

Allen Zadoff has written an unbelievable book. Honestly, it’s one of the best novels I have ever read. It dazzles in every aspect and never ceases to surprise.

 

So we start the book in the mind of our protagonist, this is a first person book. We don’t even know the protagonist’s name. The story starts off when “Boy Nobody” is friends with a kid called Jack. Jack invites “Boy Nobody to his house where his father is and that’s when we start to realise who “Boy Nobody” actually is, he’s an assassin. From the very first pages we sense that our protagonist is something special: “Jack’s dad wanders by with a beer in his hand. Chen Wu is his name. His friends call him John. He’s the CEO of a high-tech firm along Route 128. Lots of government contracts.” Our protagonist notices every little detail. Eventually he injects a poison into Mr Wu which kills him, “Boy Nobody” escapes, arousing no suspicion. That’s only the start of the book though.

Shadow Boy

Bit by bit we start to learn more about our protagonist. He gets new assignments every time he finishes one, his superiors are called Mother and Father and he still has memories of how it started. A few chapters in he’s sent on a new assignment, to kill the mayor of New York by befriending his daughter. I won’t describe what happens after that because then I would spoil your read.

 

What is so good about this book is how we discover more and more about our character as the story goes on. The author makes us believe that his mind works like a robot who’s constantly calculating but more importantly has no emotion at all. But as the story goes on we learn that’s not true. Our protagonist starts to feel emotion as doubt creeps in. The author completely submerges us into his brain; we know all his thoughts and dilemmas. What I also enjoyed very much was the attention to detail. I’ll give you an example: “She’s maybe fifteen, long brown hair, too much gloss on her lips. She has a backpack slung across one shoulder. The strap pulls her shirt tight, the swell of her breast pressing against fabric”, this is all in the mind of our protagonist.

 

AllenZadoff

Allen Zadoff

 

 

This is a fantastic read, with plenty of surprises, I guarantee if you like action, thrillers and even romance books you’ll thoroughly enjoy this one, it’s a cracker!

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Russian Roulette, Anthony Horowitz

If you happened to have read the Alex Rider series, you’ll absolutely love this one. It’s a spinoff of that bestselling series, following the dangerous Russian assassin Yassen Gregorovich. It’s basically the fictive biography of a killer.

anthony horowitz

Anthony Horowitz

 

The book starts in the 3rd person, following this strange man checking into his hotel room. The author describes his ultra-careful thoughts and his precision. Before long we are told that he sits down to read his diary. That’s when we embark on an epic adventure.

His story starts in a very small village in Russia, home to the people working in the factory. Little Yassen lived with his parents and his grandmother. His best friend was a boy called Leo. But this book is all about twists and surprises, and the first one would change his life forever. A disaster strikes and suddenly everyone starts dying including his parents who inform him that he’s immune to the killing gas. Yassen escapes the village but dangerous men would come for him. From then it’s all about survival, whatever it took.

Now I warn you, before you start reading this, it’s not a kid’s book. There’s plenty of deaths and straight-up horror, but it’s an absolutely brilliant read. There are countless twists and turns and in some parts you just won’t believe what you’re reading. I feel the real goal of the book is to show us how a normal kid, living a normal life can somehow turn into a cold-blooded killer. The reader inevitably struggles to keep up.

YassenGregorovich

Yassen Gregorovich in the movie “Stormbreaker”

 

I love this book because Horowitz is so in control of every sense (taste, feeling…). He always keeps you on your toes and even if you read all the Alex Rider books, he still comes up with plenty of surprises. At the end of the book you will feel as though you have been taken on a journey, physically and mentally. But the scary thing, despite all the bad things Yassen did, you come to love this man, and even understand him.

 

Fred

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#MHAW16 – The Outsider by Albert Camus.

the-outsider

Part 1 – review

This is the story of Meursault a French Algerian living in the early 1940s.  He is an outsider.  On paper you wouldn’t think him an outsider, he has a good job, a girlfriend, friends and a mother.  He is an outsider because of how he feels.  He approaches life with a neutral indifference, whether he is burying his mother, starting a new love affair or committing a crime – his approach is the same, matter of fact indifference.

I hope you aren’t thinking ‘that sounds weird and kind of boring’ because it isn’t (OK I do admit that as it is all written in the first person the first chapter reads quite strangely until you get used to his tone).  There’s something about his approach to life that is uplifting and his say what you see descriptions of the world around him actually create some beautiful moments.  My favourite bits are when he is describing his neighbour’s relationship with his dog, his cold observations of what he sees and hears as his neighbour comes and goes from the apartment building paint a moving portrait of the complexity and frailty of human emotion.  There is also a lovely sequence where he sits on his balcony all day and describes what he sees looking down on the street, you get a real sense of the sleepy bustle of Algiers on a hot Sunday afternoon just from his basic unflowery relating of what he can see in front of him.

Meursault does enjoy life in a way too.  He has moments of raw pleasure swimming in the sea, having sex with his girlfriend, eating a good meal etc.  He just doesn’t imbue them with meaning or emotion, they are what they are, here and now, pleasurable and fleeting.

In terms of plot, and there is a plot even though I feel this isn’t a plot driven novel,  Mersault’s mother dies in an old people’s home and he travels there to her funeral.  When he returns home he goes back to daily life and also forms a new romance and makes a new friendship.  Then, seemingly out of the blue, he commits a serious crime.  This is a very interesting point in the novel, just when you are starting to think ‘Well what’s wrong with not having conventional emotions?’, Mersault commits this extreme act – so is he mentally ill?  There are enigmatic clues that he might have suffered a trauma, he makes reference to feeling differently “before”, but doesn’t say before what, he also mentions having to abandon his studies but doesn’t say why.  Why did he do it?  The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath of the crime…I won’t tell you if questions are answered – read it to find out!

5/5

(N.B. this novel is very short, only about 100 pages, so do give it a go even if you think it’s not for you.  Even if you don’t like it it won’t be a hard slog)

Part 2 – The Outsider and mental health.

I read the outsider as it was recommended on a blog about mental health problems as a good book to read.  It appealed to me as self-help books just don’t, I always worry they will tell me what to do or try to ‘cure’ me and make me ‘normal’.  If reading to deal with mental health issues I much prefer something like this that explores issues without necessarily offering solutions.

I personally found the outsider extremely uplifting as someone dealing with mental health issues, it also made me think a few uncomfortable thoughts which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!  Meursault doesn’t think there is anything wrong with his approach to life, and I can relate to that.  Sometimes it is OK not to fit in and we don’t all have to act and feel the same.  The one size fits all approach you sometimes get to treating mental health can be frustrating when seeking help.  For example a therapist once told me that he could tell I had serious issues because I had laughed at “inappropriate things” at a previous session, I asked him what he meant and he repeated the phrase I’d laughed at – I laughed again!  I then stopped myself, did my sense of humour make me insane?  I found the quip I had made relating to death and suicide funny, darkly humorous, I still do today when I’m not in a period of crisis and am sitting calmly at my desk feeling perfectly cheerful.  Meursault goes through something similar, a priest wants him to repent for his sins and admit to believing in God and justice but he doesn’t so he won’t.  The priest becomes increasingly frustrated and Meursault starts to get bored.  It is a really good parallel with some of my experiences of therapy, the main reason I have given it up in the past has been boredom with the process, boredom with talking and boredom with listening to them tell me why I am as I am and how I should be different.

So is the conclusion live and let live, let’s all just be who we are?  Unfortunately not!  Meursault isn’t OK.  He does something both cruel, pointless and illogical.  It works out badly for everyone including himself.  Even he doesn’t seem to understand his reasons for his actions, and worryingly doesn’t even really question them.  So this book doesn’t provide the answer, but it provides lots of interesting questions and I found asking them of myself a positive exercise.

 

Zoe

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Books and Mental Health: The Shock of the Fall

“Mental illness turns people inwards […] It keeps up forever trapped by the pain of our own minds, in the same way that the pain of a broken leg or a cut thumb will grab your attention, holding it so tightly that your good leg or your good thumb seem to cease to exist.” – Nathan Filer, The Shock of the Fall

I really feel that this book tried as much as possible, within the confines of the written word, to take us into the mind of someone struggling to deal with the introspective nature of a mental illness. The reality that no one else can see these struggles can make a person feel they are going mad before the symptoms have begun manifesting themselves physically outside of their heads.

“I can only describe reality as I know it. I’m doing my best, and promise to keep trying.” – Nathan Filer, The Shock of the Fall

The Shock of the Fall is refreshing for not having a schizophrenic protagonist who spends the entire novel talking to himself and clutching his head in a dark corner of a room. I think Filer’s done a great job of giving more substance to something which can too often be viewed under one umbrella – not all mental health sufferers look the same, and not everyone deals with these issues the same way. In this book, Matt, despite his illness and outbursts, shows in his witty and often sarcastic observations of his life, that he is not defined by his mental health.

“Inside my head is a jigsaw made of trillions and trillions and trillions of atoms. It might take a while.” – Nathan Filer, The Shock of the Fall

This week is mental health awareness week, and relationships is the focus of the campaign this year – which I think is very important. Having been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) a few years ago, I have had to re-learn how to interact with people, to rewire and divert my thought processes so that I am not always assuming the worst and feeling terrible because of it. BPD is so wide and so vast, but to me, it means that on top of navigating a minefield of symptoms, I am always looking out for signs of rejection as a defence mechanism – whether in micro-expressions or brief changes in body language. This makes relationships difficult because BPD sufferers feel emotions intensely, and the slightest perceived negativity can send them into episodes of depression and self-doubt that can last days, and interacting with others during this period can be incredibly stressful. 

“[…] one thing I’ve learnt about people, is that they can always surprise you.” – Nathan Filer, The Shock of the Fall

One of the hardest things for a mental health sufferer to accept is that this illness is theirs whether they want it or not, and that can be a very isolating experience. This is why this week is so important in highlighting just how much a human presence can mean to someone like Matt, who felt often deflated and without a clue how to help himself, or accept help. Just like relationships take time to nurture, understanding the dynamics of mental health will take a long time. But all of us can make a small start by making a cup of tea for a struggling loved one, or even by picking up a book and being open about what we find in it.

 

by Lauris

 

Brent Libraries have great stock of mental health related books, whether factual or fictional. It’s never too late to start talking about mental health, and books always make great conversation starters.
Some helpful contacts, should you feel you need them:

Mind
15-19 Broadway, Stratford, London E15 4BQ
T: 020 8519 2122, Info line: 0300 123 3393
e: contact@mind.org.uk
http://www.mind.org.uk/
Samaritans
24 hour helpline: 116 123 (freephone)
jo@samaritans.org
samaritans.org
Freepost RSRB-KKBY-CYJK, Chris
PO Box 90 90
Stirling
FK8 2SA

Sane Line
Offering specialist mental health emotional support 6-11pm everyday.
You can also email through their website.
Tel: 0845 767 8000
Web: www.sane.org.uk

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What are you missing?

So far this year I’ve been reading lots of books, fiction and non-fiction, about missing people. That is, about people who go missing, and the people who miss them. Mostly the cause is abduction. I have a fairly good idea about why I chose these, though I can verify that it hasn’t been a purely conscious choice, I just, as is usual for me, went by books that caught my mind. Since this is Mental Health Awareness Week, the topic is very pertinent. As others who also have mental health that can be fragile will likely verify, at the peak of most severe illness, one’s very self feels to go missing. The theme of MHAW this year is Relationships, so a poignant and raw topic all round. When your self/mind/psyche/being feels to be AWOL, how on earth do you maintain the relationships you have, never mind cultivate new ones – having a relationship with your own self at those times can be even too much to bear. But it has to be done to survive, and such is the work of psychotherapy – and reading carefully chosen [whether by the conscious or subconscious mind!] books can indeed be part of this.

“What is this thing that happens? When disaster strikes and women come, with their cakes and their bandages, with their cups of tea and their soothing fingers. It’s the complicity of the birthing chamber, the laying out of the dead. They pick the bits of tragedy up off the floor and try to knit them together in some shape, the way I’d felt I could knit Carmel back to life. Not the way they were before, something lumpy and misshapen – but so there’s a whole again.”

The girl in the red coat by Kate Hamer

the-girl-in-the-red-coat-kate-hamerA few days ago I finished reading The girl in the red coat. It’s a seemingly understated book about loss. A mother loses her daughter, the daughter loses herself, the mother has lost her husband, the couple who abduct the daughter lose their way. Does the mother find her daughter? Does the daughter find herself? It is a novel about hidden powers, and the energy of love, betrayal and connection. It is rather a profound novel, and the quote above spoke to me deeply. It is highly resonant of a fairy tale, and if you’ve ever read Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes you are likely to be moved by this book.

TAsylumWhat happens when ideas of safety, freedom, longing, sanity and damage collide? The Asylum, a strong thriller by Johan Theorin attempts to address these conflicts in a labyrinth of twists and turns. The protagonist, Jan, is missing someone from his troubled childhood. He is a staff member of a nursery attached to a secure psychiatric hospital, where children of the patients receive care. This, in a different way, is also about relationships and grief.DeepShelter

Right now I’m coming to the end of Deep Shelter by Oliver Harris. It’s set in London, which for me is always a win for bringing things close to home – psychologically speaking that is. It reminds me, in a way, of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here we enter the literal underworld, a parallel world of fear and power beneath our very feet, our very heart. When we search for love and human connection, power can stand in its way, and ideas of freedom and responsibility seep in, too. There’s a deeper theme of loss in there as well, and but I will leave that to you to discover.

The damage that can ensue from someone going missing, whether physically or psychically – or both, transcends time and rationality. It threads into not only our relationship with those around us, but with the very self. It is a common theme in literature, as in life. Authors tackle it with depth and sensitivity. We see the scars on the psyche in glittering sore technicolour. Yet, it seems terribly hard for many people to actually talk about these kinds of themes with their nearest and dearest. That profound distress, that is often seen clinically as a ‘Mental Health Condition’, attracts such stigma in society, still. Many cases of such illness, however, and I count myself in this, are a result of the trauma of loss on all kinds of levels. The mind can break down under such despair and loneliness.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, therefore, perhaps take some time to ponder those times when you have experienced a sense of loss of self and/or loss of another, and open your heart to that and to the world.

Katie

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