All posts by Alex

Alex

About Alex

Alex likes everything but mostly reads YA and sci-fi, because she loves high stakes and spaceships. Favourite authors: David Levithan, Margaret Atwood, Patrick Ness, John Green.

Life After Life – Review

lifeYikes, this is a tough one.

I found Life After Life rather isolating to read: halfway through the book I became convinced that I was the only human being in the world who didn’t like it. ‘Dazzling,’ ‘Triumphant.’ All the reviews glowed, but I was left out in the cold.

The premise is this: Ursula Todd lives her life over and over again. If she dies falling out of a window when she’s five, she’ll get another go – this time she’ll avoid the plunge. Ursula is born in the idyllic 1800s, and watches the world change completely: we follow her life multiple times as she lives through two world wars, meets a cast of excellently-written characters, and slowly works out what she needs to do with her strange gift.

There are so many things to like about this book. The writing is gorgeous, the characters are enjoyably real (Ursula’s relationship with her sister Pammy is a real gem), and it was so good to have a female protagonist who showed complete independence. None of Ursula’s ‘happy endings’ involved a husband, and she was content with that. How many books have you read which feature that as a plot point?

And yet…I didn’t enjoy reading it. The idea of a reincarnated heroine was an interesting one, but in practise it didn’t work at all for me. Every time I was just getting into the book, it stopped and started again. There were no high stakes: sure, this life is bad, but I know she’s just going to die and next time she’ll escape the catalyst which led to her current misery. Eventually I gave up caring, because I knew that nothing was going to have any lasting consequences.

As a result, I can clinically stand back from Life After Life and say yes, this is a technically excellent book. But it never tugged at my heartstrings, it never made me feel anything for the characters. It never made me care.

Disclaimer: I may be the only reader on the edge who didn’t like this novel. Read it, think about it, make up your own mind about it. Join Gillian Flynn, Hilary Mantel and the Daily Telegraph, their praise right there on the book’s cover.

I’ll be the one scowling as darkness falls for the twentieth time.

The Psychopath Test – review

psychopath-test-fc-LST085048Psychopathy itself is a difficult thing to pin down – perhaps as a result, the ladies of The Edge of Reading found John Ronson’s The Psychopath Test is a difficult book to get to grips with.

Billed as ‘a journey through the madness industry’, the book has several narratives. Ronson starts off looking into a mystery which leads him deeper and deeper into the world of psychopaths. He meets them, learns to diagnose them (by using the Hare checklist, a chapter which had us all looking at friends and family with intense scrutiny) and tries to understand them. It’s compelling stuff – finding out about efforts to treat them, and learning how their brains differ from others, has filled several books already. The second half of the book is a series of stories, as Ronson travels all over the world to investigate the way we view, treat and publicise mental illness today.

We all enjoyed it while we were reading it, but still…there was something we couldn’t quite work out.

Maybe it’s the tone. The book is amusing (though never as funny as the reviews made it out to be) and Ronson’s engaging, anecdotal style is easy and enjoyable to read – it’s like having a really interesting conversation in a pub. But in trying to be entertaining he glosses over things, raising more questions than he answers. He’ll write a fascinating chapter and then drop it, never analysing what it really means.

For instance: a group of Americans in the ‘70s faked symptoms of mental illness and were admitted to hospitals when they were completely sane. It’s an interesting story, but what’s the real significance? Doctors can only go on what they are told, and if a patient says she’s hearing voices, the doctor will assume she is. Ronson tells the tale well, but never informs us of what happened afterwards. What did they prove, or accomplish? Did the test affect the psychiatric community in any way? Did they change their diagnostic methods? We never find out.

It was that lack of detail which bothered us – as a journalist Ronson is never going to speak with medical detachment, but there were moments when diving deeper into a story would have been more rewarding than starting a new one.

With members of The Edge of Reading largely being publishing bods, the editing of the book also came under scrutiny – it’s very patchy, with various stories and theories needlessly repeated. It felt as if the ‘blood-drinking lizards rule the world’ theory was mentioned every other chapter, and explanations were often given for things which had previously been explained.

Each story is riveting, and Ronson’s examination of the often Kafka-esque world of mental health is a good read – but as soon as we started really thinking about the book, we found that we stumbled. Read it, enjoy it – but make sure you have someone to talk to about it afterwards.

On a personal note, I’m not convinced. Jon Ronson wants to entertain, and he succeeds, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. Mental illness isn’t a subject I can find funny, and I felt that the book often confused psychopathy and other mental disorders. Ronson does a great job of finding the surreal side of a serious issue, but in the end I was left strangely cold. I feel like I missed the point.

…Or maybe I’m just a psychopath.

P.S: Jon Ronson did a TED talk about the book, which is worth a watch. Take a look.