I have just finished reading Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allen. Set in a North London day hospital, Allen draws on her own experience as a patient in the psychiatric system. It focuses on the lives of two characters, N, who has been a patient at the hospital for thirteen years and Poppy Shakespeare, a newcomer who is certain she isn’t mentally ill and is desperate to return to the outside world. Clare Allen explains:
‘What interested me in writing Poppy Shakespeare was the idea of taking a ‘normal’ person and landing her bang in the middle of this ‘upside-down’ world.’
The ‘upside down’ world which Allen describes is a place where the attempt to get better becomes overshadowed by the need to conform.
‘In the common room to be ‘abnormal’ was normal. Which is to say our normality was more or less the opposite of what might be considered normal in the world outside…so long as conforming meant being mentally ill, it made it a very difficult place to get better.’
Allen’s frustration with the system that surrounds her characters is felt throughout the story. It reasserts itself at every point, effectively causing the reader to share in this emotion. The helplessness and desperation can draw you in and drag you down, but Allen is also interested in exploring the way in which words cope with extremes of emotion and experience.
Through my work reading with dementia patients as a project worker for Get Into Reading I have become particularly interested in the way in which words and stories connect on a deep level, even when individuals have lost sense of their own personal story. Allen echoes this notion in speaking of her own experience.
‘When I arrived at the day hospital… My life had shrunk to a series of seconds, each to be somehow survived. I got through by walking, constantly walking, reciting poetry over and over to keep the thoughts from my head.’
In reading this book I was struck by the resilience of individuals, whose experiences seem unimaginable and impossible to survive. That they do survive and keep going despite this is a stark reminder of human strength, our ability to endure. That it stands so close to the contrasting frailty of a system which threatens to destroy this resilience once and for all is strangely paradoxical. And this in itself helps create the sense of claustrophobia which dominates the novel.