A few months ago, I asked my fellow authors on 'An Awfully Big Blog Adventure' what novels they had read featuring characters with bipolar disorder and which ones had best stuck in their minds. I was looking for books for adults as well as ones for younger readers, and was delighted to be introduced to several I hadn't previously known about, right across the age-range.
One of these was A Voice in the Distance by Tabitha Suzuma. This book says on the back cover: 'Not suitable for younger readers', but I would be happy to give it to anyone of about 13-14 upwards, though of course it's difficult to generalise. It's written in a very responsible way, but some of the content may be upsetting to some younger readers, or simply 'beyond their ken'.
Flynn Laukonen, the main protagonist, is a brilliant young pianist with a a wonderful career ahead of him. His girlfriend Jennah is a musician, too. Both are students at the Royal College of Music and share a flat. But Flynn is bipolar and relies on his daily medication to keep him from the wild excesses of mania and the depths of depression. Early in the book, he is hospitalised when his medication suddenly stops working, and Jennah is called upon to support him through this horribly difficult time. As the story progresses, tensions develop between Flynn's need of medication and his ability as a performer. His new pills cause his hands to shake, which is out of the question for a concert-level pianist. And, without them, Flynn believes he can attain heights of brilliance that are blocked by the medication.
The resulting chaos strains Flynn's and Jennah's relationship to the limit, and the book ends with some incredibly difficult decisions on both their parts. I found it impossible to predict how the story would end, and the conclusion left me in tears. It was all beautifully done, and I felt that the way alternating chapters were narrated by Flynn and Jennah worked very well indeed (after, I have to say, some initial scepticism on my part about this technique). I was given deep insights into both their personalities and the difficulties faced not only by people with bipolar but their friends and loved-ones too.
I also throughly enjoyed being immersed in the world of music students. The one thing I found a little hard to believe was their apparent lack of money worries, but apart from this, the scenes of student life, lectures, practice and so on were very convincing. The characters were all well-drawn, including the supporting ones, with plenty of mention of family as well as friends, which made a pleasant change from many books for this age-group.
Flynn's love of music shone from every page, as did his terrible struggles with his mental demons. I particularly liked the description on p.179 of how it feels to have depression. I am a sufferer from this condition myself and am not sure I have ever read a better account (and I include in this the US writer William Styron, whose Darkness Visible is my depression bible).
Any young person with a mental health problem would benefit, I'm sure, from the honesty that pervades this book. But the story is for anyone - the characters are alive, real and at times very funny. The narrative swings along at a good pace and keeps you hooked. In these days when many of us are clamouring for more novels (for all ages) that feature mental health - this is a joy to read. Suzuma does not hold back from confronting some of the toughest issues many of us will ever have to face.
Very highly recommended.
Title: A Voice in the Distance
Author: Tabitha Suzuma
Publisher: Definitions (Random House)
Publication Date: May 2008
This book is a sequel to A Note of Madness (2007).
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