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Review: ‘The Beauty of Broken Things’ by Catherine North

I read this in one sitting yesterday after seeing a tweet from Lauren Sapala directing me to a video of the author’s talking about this, her first novel. And what a stunning first novel it is!

The novel’s central themes are brought to life with excellent writing. Set mostly in a charity shop, brilliantly observed, the story centres on the intense love affair between two ‘broken things’, a man and a woman who despite their difficulties come to realise that having mental health problems does not make them broken at all. Upon a shelf in the shop is a somewhat ugly figurine of Cupid, one eye missing which also, though written off by most as ‘junk’ has its own beauty for one customer (the sort of person, sadly, whom society could write off as unbeautiful, as junk).

The central character, Kerry, is on a journey from debilitating anxiety to strength, and she sees that her story is one of “an ordinary life. If you changed a few of the details it could be any one of a million people’s narratives. The story of a woman growing up in the western world.”

Kerry has been hurt, and continues to be hurt, by casual sexism, a sexism made worse in that the multiple instances of it are so normalised, the ‘perpetrators’ often do realise they are doing anything wrong. A greater hurt is that her interior suffering is something she is ashamed of and dare not speak of to even her parents and sister, though she is to find comfort and affirmation from those who have known the pain of mental distress. I recognised so many of the difficulties facing a person often locked into their lonely darkness.

The depiction of Kerry’s lover’s the intense depression is as powerful and accurate as any I have come across. Not only is Alex often isolated in a seemingly inescapable abyss of despair, a private hell, his troubles are magnified by thoughts of suicide and his own belief that he is a weight on the world of ‘normality’. That and the everpresent attrition of Britain’s ‘welfare’ state, a cruel and cold also scours Kerry. Both Kerry and Alex are highly intelligent, well-educated and very sensitive people whose humanity and self-worth are constantly undermined by things they are not responsible for: biological factors, stigma, cultural beliefs and the non-stop machinery of uncaring ‘normality’, a world which has no time for those unable or unwilling to join in with its Set mostly values.
There are so many aspects of the approach to mental health, some which reference other characters such as Dan’s autistic daughter’s being bullied at school.

I am immensely grateful to have read this book because it reminded me that I am not alone. I identified with and recognised so much The novel helped me articulate things which I have kept private and muddled. Simply to know my own life is not so different after all from millions of others has helped.

There is a short passage that jumped out in particular. A character who has never suffered as Kerry and Alex have, appoints herself a moral guardian of ‘mental health’. There is a liberal consensus that ‘mental health’ is something like ‘the environment’ or ‘poverty’. These are Very Important Things that people know from dinner parties and ‘respectable’ media should arouse the appropriate expressions of concerned rhetoric. In my own life, coming constantly across such a phenomenon has added immensely to my own sense of being misunderstood or feeling able to ever make my voice heard. In fact, on several occasions after engaging with organisations that proved to be patronising and politely dogmatic, I was driven to despair. So I feel that the author has helped me so much here. I hope future readers will recognise their own assumptions, often so hurtful to matter how well-intentioned.

By taking each aspect of the issues around mental health discussed by professionals, politicians, educationists and (in my opinion at least) some big mental health charities, and distilling the reality into the thick lives of individuals, North has done more in this novel to portray the reality of mental distress than millions of pounds worth of expensive campaigns. Setting it in a charity shop, with understated references to ‘junk’ is brilliant. Broken ‘junk’, worthless, ugly, lonely, forgotten, cast-off, homeless: all made beautiful.

This is a brilliantly executed piece of fiction. I won’t detail its specific skills. I would like to state that it represents writing of the highest calibre. I’ll just say that in its artful use of settings, its characters, its pacing, we are given an immensely powerful drama set in a charity shop which could be on any high street. And the novel’s last sentence is a triumph. Doubly so.

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