Having read and loved The Universe Versus Alex Woods, I was excited to see that Gavin Extence had struck again. Even the title seemed to mimic that earlier work – but having finally tracked down a copy, I felt surprised by a book that was both very different in tone but yet possessing the same sensitivity in its approach to a complex topic. The book’s central protagonist is Abby, someone who is not as easy to warm as Alex – she even espoused one of the opinions that I have long held as utterly moronic, namely that she has ‘no accent’. Everyone has an accent. Everyone. Even people like me who grew up in Yorkshire with a Northern Irish mother and then moved to Lancashire and ended up with a weird hybrid do in fact have accents. So yes, Abby was significantly less likeable but yet the focus of the novel was a very different one; rather than a tale of profound friendship such as in Alex Woods, this is a story about the relationship which one has with oneself, a far trickier beast indeed.
The story begins with Abby going over to her neighbour’s flat to borrow a can of tinned tomatoes. For no reason that she can explain, when she gets no response, she enters the flat and finds Simon dead. To her boyfriend and the visiting police officers, Abby’s reaction seems strangely detached but to the reader, Abby seems completely fine. As a freelance writer, she even writes a piece about the experience for The Observer and in a clever in-joke, she reads the Comment section where people discuss whether or not she is in fact a sociopath. We sense Extence considering all possible responses as one reader even comments that the fact that Abby smoked a cigarette in Simon’s flat after finding his body is strangely sexy.
From there though, things start to get complicated for Abby. We hear about her regular sessions with Doctor Barbara, her difficulties getting on with Daddy, her spiky relationship with her sister. She reads a book about the way that people react to things that happen to those around them – how we relate to each other in the modern age. Her thoughts become obsessive. While Abby may be feeling pleased with herself, admiring her happy reflection in the mirror, the reader recognises that something else is going on. With great subtlety and without overblown melodrama, Extence is charting Abby going into a manic phase – the word has not been used until that point, but she is bi-polar.
Her downfall is swift – she ends up in a hotel room that is far out of her budget in an unsuitable dress with an unsuitable man and an extremely inappropriate tattoo. Extence conjures up a very convincing depiction of the claustrophobia of hypomania, how painful the battle within oneself can be and the deep, deep selfishness which such a harrowing illness provokes. How can someone whose own mind has turned on them function in a relationship with another person? How can someone who is mentally well really understand how it feels to be manic, or deeply depressed?
I was, perhaps inevitably, reminded of Nathan Filer’s remarkable The Shock of the Fall, which describes a young man’s struggle with schizophrenia. The marked difference is that Abby is an educated middle class woman in her late twenties rather than a teenaged boy with few prospects – their voices are different but their experiences of mental health care are remarkably similar. Abby finds herself in a secure psychiatric unit and it is there that she meets Melody Black. The mirror world of the title refers to a theory expressed by one of their fellow patients, that she had arrived at the psychiatric ward through having stumbled through into the ‘mirror world’, while her reflection was now living the life that was truly hers. The question hovers throughout the novel – the injustice of being so afflicted, why are they the ones to have stumbled through the mirror? What is it that truly causes it? How can Abby stop it from happening again?
Over time, I slowly came to appreciate Abby’s wit and intelligence – the letters from her bereft boyfriend were a well-judged window into Abby at her best. I was impressed by how Extence was able to pitch Abby both at her most depressed and when she is flying high – she is always, always Abby and I really sorrowed for those who loved her but were unable to reach her. The scene where she is in Dr Barbara’s flat and unable to speak made me want to cry. It is perhaps no surprise to learn that the author is writing from personal experience – in the afterword, Extence explained that re-editing the section describing Abby’s manic phase brought on his first attack in a long while. The Mirror World of Melody Black feels like a timely book – Abby’s terrifying descent from being a capable woman living her life to someone who needs to be protected from herself highlights that sufferers of mental illness look no different from anyone else, meaning that the finale is all the more sweet when Abby is once more able to blend into a crowd.
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Published by Hachette UK on March 12th 2015
Genres: Fiction, General
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