Friday, May 22, 2009
ROWAN THE STRANGE by Julie Hearn, Oxford University Press
From the review by Katherine Langrish:
A wartime novel with a difference, this time set in England - the third in a wonderful series which might loosely be termed a family saga (the first two were IVY and HAZEL) – but each novel can be read independently of the others.
It’s 1939, and Rowan, the son of Hazel and grandson of Ivy, is about to be evacuated from London. But Rowan’s not like other children. He’s subject to odd compulsions and terrors, and after he injures his sister in one uncontrollable outburst, his parents decide he will be safer in an institution where he can be treated.
But what is madness? Where is the sanity in a countryside where Rowan sees such surreal sights as farmworkers wearing gas masks while they pick apples? And in the asylum itself, where the doctors are ‘cruel to be kind’, using literally shocking therapies in the name of sanity, how important is it to ‘cure’ madness? And if a delusion is an essential part of someone’s personality, what will happen if you if blast it away?
Rowan himself is an attractive hero: introspective, willing and anxious to please. His friend Dorothea (who sees people’s guardian angels) is a fascinating creation, ‘as bright and as bitter as a lemon’ – cynical yet innocent, vulnerable yet indomitable. And then there’s the well-meaning therapist himself, Dr von Metzer – tormented by the knowledge of what is happening to mentally ill children in Germany.
This is a subtle and compelling story – with just a touch of magical realism – in which Rowan’s schizophrenia and life at the asylum with its terrible ‘treatments’, uncertain cures, and small but important rewards (a slice of cake which you are allowed to cut for yourself; a part in the Christmas pantomime) stand for the wider madness of a world at war.
We suspect that the insanity and criminal behaviour of war, and mental illness, have a similar cure - good nutrition.