These books, and consequently this review, contain references to: mental health, depression, self-harm and suicide.
In the last week, I’ve read both ‘On a Scale of One to Ten’ by Ceylan Scott (thanks to Chicken House for the arc) and ‘Whistle in the Dark’ by Emma Healy (thanks to Penguin Random House for that arc). The first is aimed at YA, the second adult fiction.
When I started this blog, my plan was to only review/blog about books I’d especially enjoyed – those I’d rate as 4 or 5*. I rated both of these 3*, but both resonated with me in various ways and got me thinking for various reasons. So, I’ve decided to post about them anyway, and as it’s Mental Health Awareness week too, it seems pretty fitting.
Whilst they approach it from very different perspectives and are otherwise nothing alike story-wise, both books deal with teenage mental health, and contain references to self harm and suicide (although, interestingly, only the YA one mentions this explicitly on the cover). As someone who has suffered with depression and anxiety on and off over the years, but starting during my teens, I’m always interested in novels that deal with this, so was intrigued by both of these.
It was the title that first made me want to read ‘On a Scale of One to Ten’ – 7 words that I hate. I don’t remember much about the various assessments and appointments I had as a teen when I was first diagnosed and rotated through a variety of tablets, but I do remember my most recent bout of anxiety and how frustrated/annoyed/angry I felt at this oft-used ‘assessment tool’ which didn’t come close to finding out anything about what was actually going on in my head, let alone helping with it.
So, when I saw the title I thought ‘here’s someone who gets it’ and delved a bit deeper. Written when Ceylan Scott was 16 and in a psychiatric hospital, it tells the tale of Tamar, who “is admitted to a psychiatric hospital for teenagers, where she is asked endless questions…But there’s one question Tamar can’t – won’t – answer: what happened to her friend Iris, who died at the weir?”
This really sums up both what I did and didn’t about the book. First the good:
Judging by the goodreads reviews so far, it’s struck a chord with many others too – being hailed as a realistic take on what life as a young person with a mental illness/in a psychiatric hospital is like, and I have to agree with much of this; I’m lucky to have never needed to be admitted to hospital, but there were certainly plenty of parts of the book that described so well my feelings or actions or thoughts at various times, especially (but by no means exclusively) when I was younger
And, while much of the book focuses on Tamar cutting to self-harm, I was pleased (I’m not sure that’s the right word) to see her write about Tamar banging her head against the wall repeatedly too – doors and walls and fists and heads and scratches and nails and pinches etc. that play a big part in my own experiences and it was refreshing to see this represented. I suspect that, through the variety of characters and their many and varied illnesses in the book, there will be moments like this for many readers who’ve been through similar.
However, there were also things I didn’t like as much: mainly the Iris at the weir plotline. I get that there had to be some sort of ‘other’ plot, but the ‘her friend died and she won’t say/we don’t know what happened’ thing just felt a bit tired (to me, personally), and I would have so much preferred this to be a book where there was no ‘major event’ triggering the illness – a representation of someone who has a mental illness just because they’re ill and not one triggered/worsened by – an external factor. Similarly, the Toby storyline, which I won’t go into in detail as I don’t want to slip into spoiler territory, but this storyline also left me unsatisfied and feeling like maybe opportunities were missed for this book to do something different.
I suspect though, this is very much my take on it as an adult; who knows how I’d have felt if I’d read it as a teen?
Which brings us to ‘Whistle in the Dark’. Although this also deals with teenage depression, in the form of 15-year-old Lana, it is written from an adult perspective, namely that of Lana’s mum Jen. Lana has suffered from depression for a long time and part of what I loved about this book was how well it showed the effects of this not just on Lana, but also on those around her, especially her mum and sister. It certainly took me back to my relationship with my mum during my younger years, and led to a fair bit of reflection. As much as ‘On A Scale of One to Ten’ felt like a wonderful insight into teenage mental health as it’s experienced, this felt like a window onto the world of those who live with/love someone who’s unwell and how upsetting/exhausting/frustrating it can be for them too.
I loved the relationships in this, if it had been focused solely on that, I’d have probably rated it much higher. The relationships between Jen and Lana took me back, while her relationship with older daughter Meg felt so relatable now, and the relationship between Meg and Lana was also incredibly easy to relate to.
However, the book focuses on the period shortly after Lana is found after having been missing for four days. Lana refuses to say what happened, and Jen becomes increasingly concerned about it. Some of this, I thought was brilliantly written, especially Jen’s worries about it. However, there were also elements that just felt unbelievable and the ending and resolution of this were ultimately what brought this down to 3 stars for me.
So, two mixed reviews on two similar and yet completely different books. The one thing I stand by for both of them is their portrayal of various aspects of mental illness, which I think – in very different ways and for very different audiences – they each captured and depicted incredibly well.
More information and support of mental illness can be found via the Mental Health Awareness website.