By Gwyneth Lewis HarperCollins, 2002 Review by Sue Bond on Jul 2nd 2003
† This is a
very likable book, one that would be comforting for many people with depressive
illness. Gwyneth Lewis' main theme is the usefulness of depression in finding
out what is wrong with your life and changing it accordingly. She uses her own
autobiography, which includes her development as a published poet in Welsh and
English, to make it a personal story of coping with depression.
† The book
has an epigraph 'Do not be discouraged' and a frontispiece, very discouraging
indeed, of Goya's 'Que Se La Llevaron' or 'They carried her off'. Throughout
the book there are quotations and snippets from newspapers and books, some
directly related to depression and some oblique references, and some simply
quirky inclusions. The serious ones, such as from Simone Weil and Rainer Maria
Rilke, are the most illustrative of what Lewis is trying to do, but some of the
others are humorous and imaginative too.
† The author
uses the conceit of a murder mystery to structure the chapters ('Previous
Convictions', 'Identifying the Body'), but I found this a weak set of
allusions, and one that sat oddly with the title. Her use of metaphor, and
language generally however, is often very good: depression is an 'internal ice
age', and there is 'permafrost around the heart'; a Zen retreat is like 'a
homeopathic dose of death'; and writing about depression is like 'trying to
nail down fog'.
mentioned, Lewis' point is clear: depression should be used as a teacher to
show you how to live. She details the possible causes of her illness as being
genetics, emotional habit and stressful life events, and illustrates these
through the telling of her mother's depression (and her grandmother's), the
effects this has on the family, and the significant moments in her own life
history. She drank heavily during one period of her life, and describes its
disastrous effects in detail painful and humiliating enough to put the reader
off alcohol for good. She also describes how depression taught her when to slow
down and reexamine what she was doing with her life, and how her thinking often
exacerbated her low moods.
she was neglecting her creative, poetic self, for example, or doing something which
was not authentic to her own beliefs, she began to fall ill. Lewis describes in
some detail her learning process with respect to her and her husband's choice
about having, or not having, children. There is a telling section early in the
book where she visits a farming friend, and takes on board the comment made
about not giving the 'empty ewes', that is the non-pregnant ones, extra food.
It has a profound effect on her, and is a factor in precipitating a bout of
depression. She learned that she had to work through the grief that resulted
from the choice that she and her husband made.
† There is a
lot of good, sweet-natured humor, and comforting stories, but after a couple of
hundred pages I felt that depression was almost being put forward as something
to be enjoyed! Indeed, the author actually states this at one point towards the
end. It is my major misgiving about this work that it is too optimistic about
the benefits accrued from depressive illness. She doesn't write enough about
suicidal ideation, and gives the impression that all you have to do is ride it
through and your life will be repaired at the end.
† There are
passages, granted, where she describes the painful aspects of her depression,
and how it slowed her down to stillness so that all she could do was sleep for
twenty-three hours in the day. She does also mention the need for a good doctor
who will listen to you, and effective anti-depressant therapy.
† There are
many good things in this book, and interesting ideas to think about. It is a worthwhile
book for a writer to read, especially, as Lewis describes her own artistic
journey as a poet, but the creative insights are applicable to a wide range of
people with depressive illness.