Anna Spargo Ryan has written a riveting and widely appraised book called The Paper House, and I’m thrilled for her success (if not a bit jelly) because I’ve followed Anna on Twitter for a few years. She is intelligent, witty and an advocate for mental illness awareness and I was particularly keen to read her book which deals with the topic of grief, because I knew that she would treat it as empathetically as it can be.
Because, let’s face it, “grief” is not everyone’s cup of tea; not everyone is prepared to open up about a topic that is so intrinsically painful and personal. But it just so happens that I have, and the subject is at the core of the storyline in my own manuscript; another reason I was keen to see how Anna treated it.
Very differently to me, it appears, because Anna is one of those rare writers whose fingers drip melted chocolate onto the keyboard and create literary genius.
I admit that these days I rarely read what would be categorised as “literary” books, and my own work will fall into the category of women’s fiction – more Jilly Cooper than Graham Greene – with its own treatment of mental illness, although it is similarly symbolised by a central, dysfunctional family whose experiences of death are treated in a more black and white, in-your-face, Big Brother style of writing.
Since having children or reaching middle age, (I’m not sure which), I suffer from what I know to be a common problem of not being able to stay awake longer than fifteen minutes through pages of descriptive prose, clever metaphors and stunning imagery, no matter how breathtaking it is.
Although that is not The Paper House. No, Anna’s book is so much more than that. It is more akin to putting on a ball dress for the first time in a long time, when you feel typically more comfortable in jeans. It forces the reader to think about her purposeful choice of every word on the page, their beauty and their poetry in spite of such gut-wrenching subject matter, as she takes you on a journey of flora and fauna and emotion.
Anna drags you into Heather’s world of visceral pain, not in a maudlin, heavy-handed way, nor does she allow you to wallow and fret for her loss. Although not trivialised, “grief” is touched upon delicately, and decorated with a heavenly backdrop that helps describe the outer body experience of living, the shell of her former self that she is reduced to by her grief.
There is dysfunction, humor and realism too, brought to life by a sister who refuses to allow Heather to fall victim to self-pity and absorption, and a husband whose view is typically more black and white, more ‘life goes on’ as well as a handful of quirky instrumental characters who pass through her journey and contribute to her recovery.
Anna’s book tackles the difficult subject of recovery of the mind, body and spirit after trauma. As is often the case, this new trauma in her life – the loss of a child – triggers the pent up grief of her earlier loss of a parent, which I recently identified as an aspect that has unwittingly crept into my own writing when I talked about my blog at a local library a few weeks ago.
To be honest, I never realised before just how much my own personal trauma has infused my writing. But grief never goes away completely.
Not trauma on the scale of heinous, newsworthy trauma, obviously, nevertheless the sort of low-level domestic trauma that we all go through at certain junctures of our lives, that is impactful enough to put a pin in our happiness, take a toll on our relationships and affect how we function.
Anyone who follows Anna’s blog knows that she suffers from anxiety and she wrote a post for Daily Life recently entitled Can We Not Shame Women For Writing About Their Trauma?. The article discusses how certain women writers have recently been accused of capitalising on their trauma in their blogs and writing. Some people believe that these writers should be reminded that not everyone is interested in reading about abuse, infertility, death or mental health issues.
But in Anna’s own words, ‘Critics accuse us of being self-focused and overly dramatic, but it is in relating these stories that we find our commonality. We are not isolated. We are not one person climbing a mountain on her own. We are women who, for the first time in all of history, can hear and be heard’.
I tackle “depression” in my book, as well as suicide, loss and the effects of mental illness on a normal family. These aren’t light topics that can be trivialised and I hope I treat them responsibly – but identifiably too – because I know that there are many people out there living those experiences right now, who are not being supported.
I used to co-run a support group for parents of kids with ADHD and sometimes our meetings would attract up to a hundred parents, all coming to be educated, supported and reassured. Due to the stigma surrounding ADHD, many of those parents chose to remain anonymous, yet still came in their flocks.
Talking and writing about trauma publicly does help others, which is why TED is such a success and literature such as Anna’s has such reach. We are fortunate to have choices in our democracy, and if we don’t want to hear about it, we don’t have to listen.