Magazine article The Spectator

Message from the Maze

Magazine article The Spectator

Message from the Maze

Article excerpt

POPPY SHAKESPEARE

by Clare Allan Bloomsbury, £12.99, pp. 344, ISBN 0747580464 . £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Clare Allan won the Orange/Harpers short story prize back in 2002. I read her winning piece at the time, and couldn't get it out of my head. She demonstrated a genuinely thrilling new voice, capturing perfectly the tone of a mental hospital ward, its tension, its maddening logic and above all its camaraderie.

So when I heard that her debut novel was imminent, I asked your literary editor for the chance to review it. OK, not asked, more like camped outside the Doughty Street office for a month, singing sonnets of longing, that sort of thing. Thankfully, I wasn't sectioned. I was sent the book.

My obsession paid off. Allan's candid portrayal of a day patient at the Dorothy Fish rehabilitation unit in north London is funny, lyrical (for all its intentional bad grammar) and deeply affecting.

The plot can be reduced to a Catch 22 conundrum. Having been admitted against her will to the unit, the eponymous Poppy Shakespeare learns that in order to be discharged she must accept her diagnosis of being mentally ill in order to prove that she is not mentally ill; her repeated denials only confirm (to the other day patients, as much as to the doctors) how mad she really is.

Helping her through this tortuous maze is N, who comes from a line of 'dribblers'.

Charged with guiding Poppy on the unit, she introduces us to such characters as Astrid Arsewipe, Middle-Class Michael, and Verna the Vomit, and illuminates the feuds and hierarchy within the hospital:

where in-patient 'flops' haunt the corridors like vultures waiting for places on the day ward, where those 'unfortunate enough' to secure discharge are pitied and where attendance in groups is voluntary unless you don't wish to attend, in which case they become compulsory. …

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