When you know someone before you read their book there is always a sense of intrigue. Is it going to reflect the personality of the person you think you know? Is it going to match your expectations?
I know Tim Atkinson via his blog, Bringing up Charlie, which I had started reading before I knew that we lived fairly close to each other and had mutual friends. I eventually met him when we unexpectedly occupied adjoining mobile homes on a campsite in France. When we greeted each other I was in pyjamas, holding a mug of tea, with my hair sticking up: he was in his shorts holding hands with Charlie. Despite the awkward start, Tim proved to be just as I expected: an intelligent, warm, genial man.
I bought Tim’s book a few weeks ago, at the same time as purchasing Tiny Acorns from Dotterel Press. Although I had not contributed to the anthology, I had helped to proofread it and felt I had part-ownership of the venture, albeit a very small one.
On the surface, Writing Therapy wouldn’t be the type of novel I would be particularly drawn to as I have become lazy with my reading choices of late, preferring to pick a book from the bestseller lists so that I have the nod of the masses to narrow my search. This book looked as if it might be hard work. On the back cover it states:
“Can you ‘write’ yourself well? And if you don’t like the story life has written for you, can you really change it? Is it possible to re-write the past?”
It didn’t sound as if it would be an easy read or a particularly happy one. However it did sound intriguing and, for heaven’s sake, surely I can knuckle down and tackle something out of the ordinary: give my brain cells a bit of a work out?
The book is about Frances Nolan, a young girl receiving treatment for mental illness, who takes up writing therapy, alongside more traditional psychiatric methods, as a way of finding a solution to her problems. The narrator is Frances, so immediately the style of writing was different to what I was expecting. It wasn’t Tim telling the story using his language, it was an adolescent girl, making tentative steps into the world of writing using her own words.
Once I had accepted the voice of the book, the challenge was then to believe in Frances. This is where the role I usually have as a reader was turned on its head. Frances is writing part biography and part fiction, exploring her past and present in order to face her future. I found this challenged my perception of ‘believing’ a narrator. What was real? What was fantasy? Was her real name Frances or was she really Sophie?
The characters around her, brilliantly described, helped me to place Frances/Sophie in her environment and I found I was rooting for the heroes of the piece, particularly Will, whose caring, foward-looking approach helped our girl find her way out of the darkness.
This is an arresting novel, constantly challenging yet, in its own way, simply written in a young girl’s frightened, traumatised voice. Underlying the story, it also examines the process of writing itself; how to put ideas onto the page and into some kind of structure. The plot develops as the author discovers how to put her thoughts into words.
A very clever concept and an enjoyable read with some mind-gymnastics thrown in for good measure. It may leave you with some questions unanswered but it won’t leave you.