Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Poppy Shakespeare

I hate to write that Poppy Shakespeare is like a cross between Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, because that's what it says right on the book jacket, but, it's a very good way to describe the book.

It's about a group of people in a mental hospital in London. "N" is the narrator, and Poppy Shakespeare is a woman who is sent to the hospital against her will and attempts to get out, only to find herself in a "Catch-22" whereby she must admit that she's mentally unstable in order to get the support of a facilitator, at which point it's she cannot argue that she is not mentally ill. The whole thing is quite alarming to N and the other patients because they are very comfortable in the hospital and feel safe there and, of course, never WANT to leave.

What emerges is that the characters glide between the fluid space of what is considered "normal" and what might be considered "unstable", and that their environment only intensifies their behavior. The book begins with a quote by Chekhov that I was reminded of again and again:
Since prisons and madhouses exist, why, somebody is bound to sit in them.
The author, Clare Allan, created a whole set of language for the hospital, including, in a very English way, various Ministries of this or that. She gives N a rather marvelous way of speaking - I'm not enough of a linguist to categorize it, but it goes like this:
That frist day Poppy gone down alright. After she'd saved Brian the Butcher's life, people give her the benefit. So when she started slagging the doctors off, how she shat better crap than they come out with, I ain't saying there weren't a bristle gone round but people was prepared to overlook it. On top of which she got novelty value; no one met a dribbler like Poppy before, and when they finally got their heads round the fact that she meant what she said, she didn't want to be there, they was that fucking jiggered, that stunned to the core, it never occurred to them they should be offended.

I thought it was excellent. Very funny and poignant.

1 comment:

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