Saturday, 11 April 2009

Poppy Shakespeare - Clare Allan

Read: April 2007

Clare Allen’s debut novel has been one of the best received debuts of the last year. Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award, Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and favourite to win the Orange New Writers title, her novel about a Mental Health hospital in North London has struck a nerve with readers and critics alike.

It is told through the eyes of N, a self-confessed ‘dribbler’ whose only ambition is never to be discharged. But when Poppy Shakespeare arrives sporting snakeskin heals and insisting she is not crazy N’s routine life is thrown into chaos. Together they must prove that Poppy really isn’t mad, but they are in a Cactch-22 situation: to prove she is sane she must pretend to be mad. What follows is a journey to the very heart of the bureaucratic hypocrisy of modern mental health care and a wry and terrifying liturgy on the impossibility of being an individual faced with the power of the system.

Comparisons to Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest have inevitably gushed from the pens of critics. There is certainly something of the surreal absurdity of Catch-22 here, although it is not as laugh-out-loud funny. In its potential ramifications for the perception of mental health care in Britain its legacy could be as great as One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. The story is perfect for film adaptation, the characters fresh and instantly likeable. The story is written in N’s vernacular dialect which takes a little getting used to but is used consistently well and N grows to become a wonderful anti-hero.

Poppy Shakespeare owes something to Clare Allen’s own biography. Her eye for irony and well honed observations were learned during her own ten year stint in a mental-health day centre. This experience, far from making this story overly emotional or self indulgent, gives ‘Poppy Shakespeare’ a real air of authenticity. The portrayal of the claustrophobic world of the Dorothy Fish is so alive with insight that you come away from it with real and justifiable fears. It is a book which asks the most elemental of questions: who is mad? Who is sane? And most importantly, who decides?

Clare Allen has written a very good debut novel, it is technically astute and a moving story. Few books should be made required reading, but this in all its political incorrectness, is one of them.

7 out of 10

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