I almost threw Amanda Craig’s happy-sad novel about manic depression across the room about two-thirds of the way through. Her protagonist, a failed London actor and imminent divorcé named Benedick Hunter, was driving me crazy until I realized he’d now entered the manic phase of his disease, which Craig had too accurately nailed. His glib energy, unexpected attitudinal turnaround, and self-conscious witticisms were as wearing on the page as when displayed by seriously depressed acquaintances in real life who exist in temporarily impregnable worlds of pinballing ideas and emotions. Craig, a master satirist with a goading voice, leads Benedick out of the woods of despair and into the bright light of self-delusion—where I wanted to leave him—before pushing him over the edge. “Nobody tells you how ridiculous depression is, how ludicrous it makes you,” Benedick warns us early on.
Craig, a British critic and journalist who has written three earlier novels, is creating a loosely unified fictional world with recurring characters. In a Dark Wood shares cast members with A Vicious Circle (1996), which affectionately eviscerated literary London through a vengeful reviewer, a depressed novelist, a rich writer suddenly forced to juggle motherhood and career, and a single mother trapped in a Dickensian hell of bad hospitals and housing. In a Dark Wood‘s “once upon a time” partly takes place in the publishing ghetto of children’s literature, which Craig populates with an assortment of mothers, monsters, and mother-monsters as she examines the thin line dividing madness and creativity.
Benedick, 39, has discovered an unpublished work by his writer-illustrator mother, Laura (who committed suicide), while gloomily divvying up the family library after separating from his wife, a romance novelist who has left him for her publisher (“She had taken the children’s books, as she had taken the children”). Benedick retreats to the home of a surrogate mother, Ruth, who provides the encouragement and clues he needs to decode his mother’s art through her life, and vice versa. Benedick’s father is a charming, successful newspaper columnist as callous toward Benedick as Benedick, at his worst, will become to his own son in this novel rife with repetitions and inversions.
North of Nowhere, the children’s book by Laura that is folded into Craig’s novel, scatters and rearranges the metaphorically amped-up primal tropes of fairy tales: witches, giants, trolls, evil stepmothers, lost innocents, and, of course, dark woods. Laura used her circle of friends as models for her illustrations, and Craig plays with the ambivalence felt by those who discover themselves integrated into an artist’s work (Craig gave in and rewrote parts of A Vicious Circle when pre-publication readers thought they’d recognized themselves in its pages). Fairy tales provide a canon of violent, sexually charged stories no V-chip will ever completely censor, and Craig gamely reconfigures archetypal characters and situations from the Brothers Grimm and Perrault, both transcribers of old wives’ tales probably authored originally by women. Despite Laura Hunter’s suicide, fairy tales are characterized throughout the book as essentially optimistic fables featuring nonheroic protagonists who “find they are stronger than their misfortunes.”
After working his way through his mother’s London circle, who deliver a mixed set of messages concerning his lovely American mother’s sad and eccentric ways, Benedick heads for North Carolina, where his “curious lightness of heart” and Eurocentric view of America as an infantile country create a scenario suggesting a Eudora Welty story as rewritten by Kingsley Amis. Benedick meets the maternal aunt whose presence figured so prominently in his mother’s final work, and a cousin Benedick falls in love with immediately and madly. The snag is the predictable, biblically proscribed, Southern one, revealed following a party Benedick ruins with slapstick flair. Laura’s North of Nowhere, it seems, was apparently as much documentary as fairy tale, a realization that drives Benedick to a botched repetition of his mother’s final page.
Well in touch with the prejudices facing women writers, an editor in A Vicious Circle complains that “it’s useless sending women reviewers books by men. Men review men and women review women.” Craig breaks with tradition by writing a novel about depression in which a man, rather than a woman, confronts the disease directly. And while Benedick may come off as a fatuous ditz through much of this often sarcastic novel, his mother’s misery is redeemed by her ability to transform it, like Rumpelstiltskin, into the gold of art. If children’s authors are the “unacknowledged legislators” of the world, due to their ability to redress unfairness, Craig has taken their work a step further by finding the hope and humanity in a frightening and confusing disease whose seemingly contradictory light and dark oscillations Craig mostly succeeds in reflecting. As Julia Kristeva asked in her own study of depression, Black Sun, “Does not the wonderment of psychic life after all stem from those alternations of protections and downfalls, smiles and tears, sunshine and melancholia?”
Other book reviews this week:
Joy Press on More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Joanna Smith Rakoff on Zirconia by Chelsey Minnis