Shortlisted for Book of the Month
AMAZON UK £2.41
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He existed under the constant threat of solitary confinement, the straitjacket, the padded cell and all that involved, the fire hose, The Treatment, The Leucotomy – or was it The Lobotomy – if he was disruptive or disobedient or if he wasn’t quietly mad.
Phenomena is the story of one man’s experience in Seacliff Mental Hospital in New Zealand in the fifties, a place where the necessity of keeping inmates passive by inhuman means took precedence over restoring their mental health. As the author observes, it is a place for the unloved and unlovable, the uneducated and unwanted.
When the book opens, Malcolm has been transferred from Seacliff to a home where the residents live independently, with a nurse visiting only once a week. There he might have lived out his life happily. Except that Julie, the blind girl he befriended, dies in a tragic accident. His resultant grief takes him back to Seacliff where he is subjected repeatedly to The Treatment, electric shock therapy that takes away his memories.
Today we have to shudder in horror that places like this existed and such practices were routinely applied in the name of medicine.
But Malcolm is a fighter and knows it’s important to get his memories back. As they return, we learn he was a normal little boy, except that he had a weak eye and arm and needed a special shoe. His father had already begun an affair when his mother died, and Malcolm became one of the unwanted. Left, at a railway station at the age of six, he ended up in Seacliff. Knowing what caused him to be placed in the mental hospital is the beginning of a process that leads him to happiness.
I adore Malcolm. I want to meet him and take care of him. He is a humble soul, a gentle giant, compassionate and giving, and possesses his own simple logic. He finds pleasure in the company of Julie, and the things he sees on their walks together. He accepts people as he finds them without judgement. The book is populated by other characters, brought to life by skilful writing. While often exhibiting bizarre behaviour, they are also lovable. Their unique tales are told in vignettes, sometimes tragic but interspersed with humour.
I expected this to be a dark and depressing story. And of course it has its dark moments, but it was never depressing, mostly because of Malcolm. He never despairs but survives the soulless institution and deserves his happy ending.
© Susan Appleyard
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