Just outside Boston, in 1963, Frederick Merrill found himself a patient in the country’s premiere mental hospital, a world of structured authority and absolute control – a forced regression to a simpler time even as the pace of the outside world accelerated into modernity. Meanwhile, in a wintry New Hampshire village hours to the north, Frederick’s wife Katharine struggled to hold together her fracturing family and to heal from the wounds of her husband’s affliction. Nearly fifty years later, a writer in his twenties attempts to comprehend his grandparents’ story from that turbulent time, a moment in his family’s history that continues to cast a long shadow over his own young life. Spanning generations and genres, The Storm at the Door blends memory and imagination, historical fact and compulsive storytelling, to offer a meditation on how our love for one another and the stories we tell ourselves allow us to endure. Quietly incisive and unflinchingly honest, The Storm at the Door juxtaposes the visceral physical world of Frederick’s asylum with an exploration of how the subtlest damages can for ever alter a family’s fate.
This a beautifully written novel, in language which is often poignant and rather poetic. I did find the first third of the book to be quite slow, and so it took me a little while to settle into it. Eventually however I became quite immersed into the lives of Katherine and Frederick Merrill.
This is a biographical novel, a novel written about the author’s own grandparents. It is therefore hard to know where exactly the fiction begins and the biographical nature of the story ends, and how important this is to the reader I can’t decide. This must have been an incredibly important book for this young author to write, there must have been a sort of healing in the act of laying bare the facts of his grandparents difficult marriage. Set mainly in New Hampshire in 1962 – this is the story of Katherine and Frederick Merrill, of Frederick’s mental illness and incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, and how Katherine left behind managed keep things going.
Sometimes Katherine seems a bit hard, in her attitude to her husband locked away in the Mayflower asylum – but this is her coping mechanism – she is a still young woman with four daughters to bring up. She is alone, her own father, once supportive to her and her husband is now much less so, and is threatening to pull the plug on the bills, she has no idea when her husband will return, or in what condition. Meanwhile her husband is dependent upon the staff of his psychiatric hospital. Dr Canon – a deeply flawed man himself, subjects Frederick to electric shock treatment and solitary confinement – because Frederick knows a secret about him. Frederick is locked up with some deeply troubled and brilliant minds – these characters are fascinating, and help to bring the story to life. The story of the asylum, Dr Canon and his staff I found dreadfully sad, and no doubt horrifyingly authentic.