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Hilary T. Smith
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A Blue So Dark - Holly Schindler ”Sanity is a sonnet with a strict meter and rhyme scheme – and my mind is free verse.”The relationship between mental illness and creativity is a subject I find both intriguing and provocative. I think I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of a type of symbiosis existing between them. After all, the concept of the tortured artist has become something of a stock image in our society, and not entirely without basis (see: The Sylvia Plath Effect, for example). It’s a fraught, complicated topic, and essentially the reason I decided to read ‘A Blue So Dark’, despite not having strong positive feelings for Schindler’s second novel, Playing Hurt. A Blue So Dark examines this purported link through the eyes of fifteen-year-old Aura, whose mother Grace is an artist and has schizophrenia. Yet not only does Aura believe her mother’s artistic urge is connected to her illness, she believes it is also the cause. Aura is convinced that the well of creativity that both she and her mother possess is also where the seed of instability germinates, is nurtured and fed, and will ultimately choke off their hold on reality. Understandably, this misapprehension causes Aura to struggle to accept that she shares her mother’s artistic bent, and to resist any inclination to pursue her talent. Schindler has created a strong and compelling voice in Aura, it’s hard-edged and blunt and raw. Despite her situation, she’s not an immediately sympathetic character, but she’s interesting. In fact, it’s her slightly repellent exterior with which she masks her fear and tries to hide her mother’s illness that kept me reading and caught up in her story. It was also the major difference between this novel and Playing Hurt – I wasn’t completely uninterested in the main character this time around. A large part of the plot hinges upon the fact that Aura shoulders the responsibility for her Mother’s care as her mental state deteriorates, and doesn’t confide in anyone except her best friend, who has distractions of her own. It would have been easy for this element of the story to demand too much suspension of belief. Would a fifteen-year-old girl really not tell another adult what was really going on, or ask for help, particularly when her mother’s behaviour becomes dangerous? Fortunately, Schindler handles this part of the story well, using Aura’s relationship with her remarried father and the family backstory to essentially hobble Aura’s ability to confess what’s really happening to her Mother.”If I break my promises, I’m terrified Mom will snatch her love away, like it was never truly mine to begin with, but a library book that I’m now supposed to return.” In some ways, it’s a frightening book. Not because of Grace’s schizophrenia, but because of the claustrophobic sense of Aura’s isolation, and the consuming fear that she’s seeing her own future in her mother. Aura believes the answer lies in the excision of art of from their lives, and it’s painful to read about her attempts to destroy this part of herself and her mother.”I mean, they’re the same, right? Creative and crazy. And it won’t be easy, because it’s the one thing Mom and I love more than other other, that makes us whole – but isn’t that how a druggie feels about her needles? Doesn’t she think it’s the thing that makes her complete? The thing that allows her to function? And if all those people in A.A. and N.A. can walk away from the bottle, the pills, the powder, then Mom and I could way away, too, right?” Schindler also touches on Grace’s aversion to medication, though without any heavy-handed commentary. Again, this is a difficult, deeply personal issue for many, raising the question of at what cost they want stability. I know that some have felt the ability to function on a daily basis has been bought at the price of some of their creative drive. That others have had to debate where their artistic skill ends and mental illness begins. And it’s never a simple issue. While Schindler doesn’t delve particularly deeply into this area, she does draw attention to the need for those with mental illness and their family members to feel safe and cared for. Throughout the novel, there is a recurrent theme of family, and Schindler has created three strong, compelling female characters in the Aura, Grace and Nell (Grace’s mother). I liked the fact that the story is not overshadowed by the secondary characters, or by a romantic subplot, but firmly held together by the intertwining relationships and conflicts between the three central women. There’s an image towards the end of the novel of a three-headed mermaid, and it feels like a fitting symbol of their individuality, and also their combined strength as a family unit.My reasoning for the three stars, as opposed to the four I contemplated giving this book, is that some elements of the story, particularly where it related to Nell and Grace felt a little hastily inserted and convenient. Also, while I liked this book, and much of it resonated with me, it wasn’t quite the profound and intensely thought-provoking experience it might have been.It is, however, an interesting insight into complex family dynamics, and a teenage girl’s struggle to reconcile her beliefs and face her very real fears.* * * * *I liked this so much more than Playing Hurt. Review to come.