This Little Bag of Dreams

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Category: Depression

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

I had a brother. I learned about love by loving him. He had the first bits of my heart. He died.

I wanted this book to be a work of fiction.  It would make a wonderful, albeit incredibly sad, story. But unfortunately, it is true.  Fortunately for us, however, Rentzenbrink writes so gloriously that we are glad, for all its tragedy, that she has shared her story – Matthew’s story – with us.

It was a summer’s night in 1990, much like any other one for Cathy and Matthew Mintern, a sister and a brother with barely a year between them. They had worked a shift at their parents’ pub and then carried on the night at a disco nearby. The turning point for Cathy was when a friend offered her a lift home. With awful irony, Matty declined, saying that he ‘might get lucky’.  Barely a couple of hours later, he was knocked down by a car, and Cathy prayed that he would not die. Little did she know that death would be a better fate than what lay ahead for Matty.

For Matty did die – but only after the Mintern family brought a court order seeking permission to withdraw all hydration and nutrition. This was after 8 painful years of no progress, and their parents looking after him 24 hours a day for most of those 8 years.

This is a truly tragic, but nonetheless inspiring, story.  I am so glad that Cathy shared it with the world, that she realised it wouldn’t be ‘imposing…heartbreak’ on us, but rather encouraging others to share their own tragedies. What’s more, her writing is stunning, and I very much look forward to seeing what she does next. (I have a feeling it will be fiction.)

Many thanks to Francesca Main at Picador for the review copy.

The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait

The View on the Way Down is an achingly beautiful debut novel. It tells the story of two missing brothers, one dead and one disappeared, the sister left behind, who turns to God and food for comfort, and the parents who find their escape in creating things.

After a prologue which takes place over ten years ago, the novel opens in a Sheffield bookshop, workplace of Jamie, the ‘surviving’ brother, five years after Kit’s death. Unsurprisingly, as a former bookseller, I loved this setting. Bookshops are places of tremendous opportunity (I met my partner in one), and there are some lovely humorous moments where he deals with some frightfully particular customers. But the most brilliant thing of all is the irony of the setting. In books, we discover ourselves. VWe harvest information. Jamie, however, needs no such self-discovery. Already, he is far too aware of his abilities. Therein lies the greatest secret of the novel.

Jamie’s family, from which he is estranged, are also struggling to cope with Kit’s death. The mother, Rose is a compulsive cleaner and obsessive cook, who never dares to pretend they are anything other than the perfect nuclear family, for fear she may self-destruct. Impatient Joe, her husband, is the hardest character with which to sympathise. He treats Rose with barely disguised contempt and retreats to his shed to avoid what little family he has left. But he shows moments of tenderness, and one of the novel’s loveliest moments is when he presents Emma with hand carved wooden fruit on her fifteenth birthday.

Unsurprisingly, the hardest parts to read were both Kit’s and Jamie’s descent into depression. Brilliantly, like their father, they are also quite unlikeable at times, rendering Wait’s depiction of their breakdowns all the more realistic.

This is a deceptively simple book. Wait’s writing is never overwrought, making the rare moments of imagery all the more effective. For instance, it is only after reading a great deal that the brilliance of the opening can be appreciated fully. We realise that Rose has always used food to show love, giving her toddler Emma plenty of chips to keep her happy. So food is not used purely later on as an attempt to keep her fragile family together, but rather, we understand that Rose has always needed to use food as a uniting force at home.

I finished The View on the Way Down feeling very sad indeed, but not without hope for the characters. After all, although a Hollywood ending would have been inappropriate, depression need not mean tragedy for everyone.