I came up trumps on Librarything last month, winning this novel from the Early Reviewers programme. Stefan Merrill Block’s second novel is a part factual, part fictionalised telling of his grandparent’s lives, focusing on the period in the early 1960’s when his grandfather was admitted, against his will, to one of America’s most famous asylums, McLean Hospital, near Boston. Block writes about his grandfather’s imagined experiences within the asylum, and the repercussions this had on his grandparents’ marriage, future lives, and the lives of their four daughters, one of whom is Block’s mother. Block knew his grandmother, which gives the novel a real sense of authenticity in its characterisation, and it really is a remarkably good book. I wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did, and I have to say that despite the fact Stefan Merrill Block is one of those annoying super successful twenty something authors I hate because they throw my own mediocrity in my face, I cannot deny that he is an exceptionally talented writer. I couldn’t put this beautiful book down, and though I finished it early last week, Frederick and Katharine, Block’s grandparents, haunt me still.
Katharine and Frederick Merrill met and married in a whirlwind courtship during the war, and, barely knowing each other, found themselves, once it was over, living with a virtual stranger. Katharine had not noticed Frederick’s dependency on alcohol before; his violent mood swings; his tendency to be unfaithful. As their lives go on together, and Frederick’s ambitions get more thwarted, his behaviour becomes more and more erratic. While the pair are passionately in love with one another, the times when Frederick is able to function normally, to have fun, to show Katharine the carefree, joyful, spontaneous, fantastically imaginative man she fell in love with, become fewer and farther between. They have four daughters together, and live a quiet life in New Hampshire, their privileged lifestyle largely funded by Katharine’s wealthy father. Their friends and family can tolerate Frederick, can brush aside his often manic, incomprehensible, reckless behaviour, and Katharine is prepared to forgive him his frequent infidelities, secure that they mean nothing to him; but one fateful night, the night around which this novel hinges, Frederick takes things too far. Drunk, he thinks it will be a lark to run outside and flash passing motorists. Two women report him to the police, and fed up with the struggle of coping with his behaviour, Katharine follows the advice of the police, and her family, to have Frederick admitted to Mayflower, a phenomenally expensive asylum where the mad relatives of the great and good of New England are sent for a ‘rest’, presided over by the gentle and compassionate Dr Wallace.
At first it seems Frederick won’t be in Mayflower for long; he is respected by Dr Wallace, has convinced everyone that he’s not really insane, and enjoys a good rapport with the other patients, such as a fabricated version of the poet Robert Lowell, who has checked himself in and is free to leave at any time. Mayflower itself is an antiquated institution, where respect for the patients is paramount. Those suffering delusions, such as the split personalities of the wonderful, flamboyant Marvin, and the genius Professor Schultz, are largely let be. However, one night, there is a tragic suicide, the first in a number of years, and this is the catalyst for a change of management and a change of procedure. Dr Canon, a pioneering psychologist, who is determined to prove his radical theories through Mayflower’s patients, brings in strict new rules, and refuses to listen to Frederick’s insistences that he is not insane. As Frederick has been admitted through the police, he is not allowed to leave until Canon certifies him as sane, something he is not prepared to do. Katharine has no power to let the suffering Frederick out, and as the months drag on, Katharine struggles to make ends meet, is ostracised by her friends and family, and is racked with guilt at the knowledge that she allowed Frederick to be incarcerated when she is not convinced herself that he is genuinely mentally ill. In love with him still, but tired of the struggle to live with someone who is so unpredictable, Katharine cannot help but wonder whether her life would be better without him in it.
Mayflower and its inmates come alive through Block’s pen, as does the stifling world of Katharine’s husbandless home and her life of disappointed dreams. Both fascinating, exceptionally good looking, intelligent and ambitious people, somehow, their lives and all the hopes of greatness they had for themselves failed. They are wonderful characters; real, conflicted people, struggling to make sense of a life that should never have been theirs. Their love binds them together, but the pain and frustration of mental illness has torn them apart to the point where love really isn’t enough anymore. Frederick’s experiences in Mayflower are fantastically rendered, and the portraits of his fellow tortured inmates are almost unbearably tender and moving. Katharine’s regrets, her longing to reach back into the past and make things different, to be the woman she thought she would be, and has not become, were also incredibly powerful. It’s a novel laced with emotion, with regret, with sadness; but also beauty, and hope, and love. It’s beautifully – if a little over descriptively – written, and overall, I thought it was magnificent. It is released on June 21st – I hope many of you will get the chance to read it. I have a very scruffy galley copy I’m happy to send out if anyone wants it – it’s been floating around in my bag and is very dogeared as a result, but perfectly readable nonetheless – let me know in the comments and I’ll do a draw if there’s more than one. I’ll send anywhere!