Bloomsbury UK – Published March 5th 2007.
There are 25 residents at the Dorothy Fish, one for each letter of the alphabet – the ‘P’ chair is vacant. The day hospital sits on the bottom floor of an impossibly tall tower, stretching so high into the sky that its uppermost residents can see right round the world and back in through the window behind them. The system is simple: the crazier you are, the higher up the tower they put you.
When Poppy Shakespeare arrives, N. has already been at Dorothy Fish for thirteen years, and spends her days quietly, smoking in the common room and swapping medication with her fellow patients. But what happens in the next six months will change both of their lives forever.
In this inventive and brutally comic novel, Clare Allan captures the familiar and sometimes terrifying idiosyncrasies of a modern institution, asking the question: who is mad and who is sane? And who gets to decide?
My Review. (Contains Spoilers)
Being a ‘service user’ myself, I felt this an appropriate choice for my first review.
A satirical look at the British mental health system, Poppy Shakespeare is told through the eyes of N, a self-confessed ‘dribbler’. N is assigned as Poppy’s guide when Poppy is forced to attend the Dorothy Fish, despite her insistence that she is completely sane. Poppy is desperate to leave but needs legal aid to help her. In order to qualify for legal aid, she must first be awarded ‘mad money’, meaning to prove she is sane, she must first be certified mad. In contrast, N, hopes to never be discharged.
Through the course of the book we gradually see Poppy go from well groomed, rebellious and seemingly ‘normal’, to being moved up onto a higher floor of the hospital, and as we know, the higher up you are sent, the madder you are. N, however, goes from being unwashed, compliant and knowing how to work the system so she never gets discharged to the world of ‘sniffs’, to stylish, assertive and exactly how Poppy used to be. N even starts wearing make up and Poppy’s fashionable cast offs.
From the beginning of this book, it is clear that there will be no happy ending. The opening lines – “I’m not being funny, but you can’t blame me for what happened. All I done was try and help Poppy out” – ensure that we know this.
The grammatical errors that would, any other time, annoy me to the point of distraction, just seem to work here. N, coming from a mother who was also a ‘dribbler’ and living in a flat given to her by the day hospital, doesn’t conform to the usual linguistic style. But, it’s ok. It just helped Clare Allan endear me to N even more.
Perhaps I can find myself relating to the author, as she – like me – has spent time in a psychiatric institution. This novel is, I think, a love it or hate it look (albeit an exaggerated one) at the shortcomings of these places, the red tape and lack of communication, and the effect it can have on the ‘dribblers’ in the system.
Poppy Shakespeare has also been made into a 90 minute drama, which I feel, does the book the justice that it deserves.
I would recommend this book highly. Once you get your head around the style of writing, it will take you on an emotional journey. It took me through anger at the system, empathy towards both N and Poppy and frustration at how bizarrely true to life some parts of it are. I’m giving Poppy Shakespeare the maximum 5 stars as it’s a book I go back to again and again, whether I’m looking for a humorous, light hearted read, or a sentimental and poignant wake up call to the imperfections of a service set up to protect some of the most vulnerable members of society.