A few novels, comics, and a zine that look at mental health in a variety of ways:
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (novel)
This book does that thing I find annoying where it hints at Something Bad in the past and doesn’t tell you what it is until the end (though it’s pretty easy to work out early on). However, it’s still worth your time. This is told from the perspective of Matthew, a man with psychosis. Because you are inside his head, it makes those things that seem “weird” or “crazy” to others perfectly understandable. It also talks a lot about the difficulties of being a patient in a mental health system which is underfunded and, at times, dehumanising. Nathan Filer is a mental health nurse, and that experience definitely comes through.
A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon (novel)
This is a funny, enjoyable, easy-read family drama centred around fifty-seven year-old George who has just retired. Among other things, George develops quite severe health anxiety, though does his best to hide it from the rest of his family. Because you see it from George’s point of view, it’s easier to understand why he does something rather extreme that just looks out of the blue and “crazy” to the rest of his family who haven’t seen how he got there. (Note: As I read this a very long time ago I can’t remember how it ends, so I can’t be sure how good a representation of anxiety/health anxiety it is, but I remember it being an enjoyable read).
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (novel)
Mireille is kidnapped, held hostage, and repeatedly raped (so trigger warnings for graphic sexual violence for this one). What’s really good about this novel is that it doesn’t end on the ‘rescue’ being a neat and happy ending, but shows the aftermath of trauma and sexual violence. It also shows how difficult it can be for people around the person to know how best to help them, but, importantly, that it’s not that person’s job to teach them as they’re using everything they’ve got just to hold themself together. I do remember thinking the end was a bit too neat and a few of the characters a little one-dimensional, but that it was a fast-paced and important book, particularly about PTSD.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang (tr. by Deborah Smith) (novel, Korean in translation)
Unlike the previous novels in the list, you never hear from the central character, Yeong-hye, in this book – you are put in the position of the characters around her who are unwilling or unable to truly hear or understand her. As a result, it’s never quite clear what’s happening for Yeong-hye, but she essentially turns away from ‘normal’ living, trying to become one with the nature around her by taking control of what she eats and her body. Is it about taking control of her body for herself, regardless of what that may mean for her life? Or is it more about a kind of self-destruction in reaction to the world in which she lives? Perhaps it’s a little of both.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (novel)
In the 1930s, Esme is too outspoken and too unconventional and is committed to an asylum where she lives, without visitors, for 60 years, after her sister Kitty admits Esme has hallucinations. In the present, Iris receives a letter that a great-aunt Esme she’d never heard of is due to be released from her psychiatric unit, while Kitty is in a residential home with Alzheimer’s. This is another one I haven’t read in a very long time, but I remember it being beautifully written and paced, with the kind of open, but not really, ending I like. As well as about mental health generally, it’s also about the way behaviour can be pathologised because it doesn’t meet societal norms and expectations, particularly for women.
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh (comics, non-fiction)
You’ve probably seen panels from her comics, with different captions, as memes for all sorts of things. But I urge you to read the original. As well as funny stories about her dogs and from her childhood, a main theme in her work is mental health and depression. This contains one of the most eloquently accurate and bleakly funny descriptions of living with depression I’ve ever seen.
The Red Tree by Shaun Tan (graphic novel, fiction)
This picture book is an absolutely beautiful depiction of navigating the world with depression, and finding hope. I think it jumps to the hopeful end a little too quickly, but the book is so good I don’t actually mind that much. I will never get tired of Shaun Tan’s artwork.
Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner (graphic novel, non-fiction)
This is a memoir about some of Evie’s childhood spent visiting family in New South Wales, and her childhood fear of sharks. Evie’s obsession with sharks becomes a safe place for her brother, and for her, to connect with her dad. But it’s also about that anxiety that lies beneath, that follows you everywhere, even if you ‘know’ it’s irrational to be afraid of sharks indoors, in Peckham. It feels very true of childhood anxieties, the big ones, that they are a fascination as well as a fear, and are often a displacement for the big adult fears that you aren’t ready for yet. In this sense it’s a book about growing up, about seeing danger or difficulty, and learning how to cope with that when “everything is teeth” (every part of it can hurt you). But it is more complex than that – as Evie does grow up and learns that even though it can hurt you, it doesn’t mean to.
Are You my Mother? by Alison Bechdel (graphic novel, non-fiction)
This is a graphic novel about Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, her own therapy, and psychoanalytic theory. It’s not as accessible, or quite as good, as Fun Home, but if you are interested in psychoanalysis and literature, this is worth a look and beautifully drawn with a muted red colour palette. But if you haven’t experienced therapy yourself, just be aware that most therapy isn’t psychoanalysis and isn’t like this at all, there’s no lying on the couch in the NHS!
Do What You Want edited by Leah Pritchard & Ruby Tandoh (non-fiction)
There are no hard copies left of this limited-edition zine about mental health, but you can still get an ebook copy. And you definitely should. It’s a mix of essay, comics, illustration, and recipes that covers a wide range of mental health issues by a wide range of contributors. It’s incredibly good and there will definitely be things in here that resonate deeply.