- 03 Oct 18
Whether it’s psychological issues like depression or social topics relating to loneliness or alienation, contemporary writers have offered fresh perspectives on mental health. Here, we select 10 books that deal with these subjects in a vital and important way.
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower
Introversion, sexuality, drug use, body image and suicide – Stephen Chobsky’s novel ticks more than a few boxes when it comes to exploring adolescent mental (ill-)health. Much like Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye – whose style it borrows heavily from – this book has become an essential read for teenagers who feel themselves to be on the “outside”. Beyond that, it’s also a devastating depiction of childhood trauma and coping mechanisms.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck
Far be it from us to tell you not to follow the advice of your chosen self-help book/blog, but if this polluted era of constant self-improvement, self-actualisation and selfies ever needed a solid kick up the arse, it got it with Mark Manson’s 2016 book. Manson uses his own personal experiences – told through his wry stylistic prism – to create a “helpful” guide to life, without feeling the need to feed you bullshit. You won’t learn how to be a successful business person. You won’t achieve nirvana. You may, however, learn how not to give a fuck. And sometimes, that’s a valuable thing.
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
As with the titans of Irish stream-of-consciousness before her, Eimear McBride’s debut novel goes straight to the root of human feeling. Exploring the mind of a young woman who develops troubled relationships with friends and sexual partners after an abusive childhood, McBride’s novel can be earth-shatteringly difficult to read at times. However, her stylistic approach to cognition and the processing of early childhood memories makes this one of the most important books in the modern Irish canon.
The Girl On The Train
As well as being an international bestseller and the basis for a Hollywood film, The Girl On The Train is one of the best modern examples of “the unreliable narrator” – and what this term can mean for mental health. The story follows an alcoholic divorcee who ruminates over her failed marriage and (mis)remembers how her drunken episodes led her to lash out at her husband. A pitch perfect crime thriller, this is also an important story about the effects that “gaslighting” can have on the mind.
The Trick Is To Keep Breathing
One of the most frank depictions of clinical depression, the debut novel from Scottish writer Janice Galloway has all the traits of a black comedy, but with real, lingering emotional impact throughout. It focuses on drama teacher Joy Stone, who has become severely depressed following the death of her married lover, and who embarks on a fraught internal journey of recovery.
Owning It: Your Bullshit-Free Guide To Living With Anxiety
Note the “Living with anxiety” part and think about that for a second. We’re always trying to be our better selves. We’re always trying to perfect our image. When something “bad” happens, we want to overcome it. We want to be rid of it. At the very least, we want to pretend that it’s not there. The thing we never seem to want to do is to accept the idea of simply living with it. But for Caroline Foran, successful Irish journalist, becoming crippled with anxiety which she’d ignored all her life led to her finally accepting her symptoms. Through this, she learned to live with them. Her book is a powerful account of self-acceptance.
The Bell Jar
The only novel written by American poet Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar is consistently ranked as one of the best novels of the 20th century, and one of the chief texts when it comes to understanding, and exploring, mental health. Telling the story of Esther Greenwood (whom it’s widely accepted is a fictionalised version of Plath herself), the novel examines patriarchal society and female independence as powerfully as bipolar illness and depression. Despite being over 50 years old, its themes are as relevant now as they were in the early ’60s.
An Unquiet Mind
Kay Redfield Jamison
From a cultural and academic perspective, this book changed the way thousands of people thought about mood. One of the foremost authorities on manic-depressive illness, Jamison also experienced it firsthand. Even as she was pursuing a career in academic medicine, she found herself succumbing to the same exhilarating highs and catastrophic depressions that afflicted many of her patients. Her disorder launched her into ruinous spending sprees, episodes of violence, and an attempted suicide. In this book, Jamison examines bipolar illness from the dual perspectives of the healer and the healed, revealing both its terrors and the cruel allure that at times prompted her to resist taking medication.
A Monster Call
It would be wrong to have a list like this and not include at least one fantasy/science-fiction novel. In many cases, the best discussions around mental health come through allegory. Such is the case in Patrick Ness’ heartbreaking young fiction novel, A Monster Calls. The novel tells the story of 13-year-old Conor O’Malley, who processes the reality of his mother’s terminal illness with the help of a monster, who visits him in the night to tell him stories and allow him to communicate his grief and pain. The original idea came from writer Siobhan Dowd, who died of terminal cancer before she could see the book completed.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
Winner of the 2018 Costa Book Award, Honeyman’s debut novel is one of the most relatable stories about the everyday angst that so often attends the simple act of trying to function within society. Protagonist Eleanor Oliphant struggles with her social skills and relies for her balance on a highly regimented routine – which is upended when she befriends a work colleague and finds herself thrust into a journey of self-discovery. Honeyman’s deft tackling of depression and alienation make this a powerful read.