Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted is the autobiographical story of the creator’s time in a psychiatric award in 1967. Sylvia Plath was once a patient at the same hospital in the early 1950s so inevitably comparisons have been made between Plath’s The Bell Jar and Kaysen’s novel–both recounting a young woman’s descent into insanity. This, alternatively, is where the similarities end–The Bell Jar is a haunting and lyrical book; Girl, Interrupted is a more hard-edged, documentary-style narrative. It has not one of the beauty and poetry of Plath’s prose and is more akin to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation , an up-to-date memoir of a young girl’s struggle with depression and drugs. Both these books offer a brutal and stark image of a lifetime of mental illness.
Kaysen’s account goes further and questions the usual notions of sanity and insanity. Her plausible voice allows the reader to accept a world where time is distorted, chaos reigns and questions are left unanswered, capturing perfectly the sense of helplessness and frustration felt by these women. The book’s gritty realism may be heightened by copies of the creator’s original medical reports lodged between the chapters.
However, it is her penetrating insights into those around her, from those cared for to the caretakers, that make “Girl, Interrupted” so potent. Lacing her narrative with a hard-edged, sardonic sting, she introduces us to a cast of characters from the outrageous Lisa to the chicken-hoarding Daisy to the Martian’s girlfriend:
Daisy was once a seasonal event. She came before Thanksgiving and stayed through Christmas annually … “Would somebody like to share?” the head nurse asked … “Me! Me! Any person who was once a Martian’s girlfriend and also had a little penis of her own, which she was once eager to sing their own praises, raised a hand; nobody wanted to share with her.
“Girl, Interrupted” is a credible and creditable chronicle of the lives of women in the 1960s who, through the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of society, were contained and monitored for not fitting into the “norm”, the mainstream. Nicola Perry
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