Meet Abby, a 20-something who has been diagnosed as type two bipolar: ‘I enjoy it because it’s extraordinary…it’s like existing in a perfect little bubble. Everything feels easy, nothing hurts. If I could live my whole life like that, I would.’ She’s at the heart of Gavin Extence’s sensitive, witty second novel, The Mirror World of Melody Black (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99).
The immediacy of his writing draws you into Abby’s world, and cleverly shows how fine the line is that separates what we call ‘normal’ from not. As you read, everything seems stable, then, before you know it, Abby has descended into mania, and you realise that her actions are those of someone whose mental health is under threat.
When her ‘perfect little bubble’ bursts, Abby is admitted to a psychiatric ward where she meets Melody. Melody has ‘acute unipolar depression and maybe some sort of personality disorder as well. They’re still deciding. You know what doctors are like.’ Extence is convincing as a male author writing a first-person female narrator; Abby is funny, and you are on her side from the get-go. Seeing the world through her eyes and witnessing her mood changes, you understand the highs and lows of bipolar – in his author’s note, Extence says he wanted to write ‘something truthful’ after his personal experience of mental illness.
The narrative treads the fine line between Abby’s two states, with clear-cut truths peppered throughout. She says: ‘Sanity… could be measured by the cleanliness of your hair, the set of your facial features, how you respond to social cues.’ How many of us feel we are on the edge of that sometimes, whether we have an illness or not? At the uplifting conclusion, you’re left with the conviction that mental illness must not be stigmatised, and the hope that Abby can live her life to the full.