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Posts Tagged ‘Jacqueline Roy’

Penguin have recently reissued six titles for their Black Britain Writing Back project, the author Bernadine Evaristo has helped champion them and has written the introductions. The Fat Lady Sings is the first of two in the collection that I bought when they came out. Like the other books in this series, it has been out of print for some years – although originally only published in 2000 it seems it fell out of print soon afterwards. My book group chose to read this book (not suggested by me in fact) the day after my copy had arrived, which prompted me to read it fairly quickly.

I really, really enjoyed this book, and my initial worry that perhaps aspects of the novel would be grim or sad – were not really borne out. The novel explores mental health in the UK – and it does so very honestly. It is an incredibly moving depiction of mental health in the 1990s. Ultimately I found the novel life-affirming and hopeful – I hope that isn’t a spoiler, future readers might like to know they won’t be ground down by this one. While there may be moments of anger for the reader – there will be moments of joy too.

Gloria is a middle aged black woman living on a psychiatric ward in a London hospital in the 1990s. She is unapologetically loud, and always seems to have a song inside of her just waiting to burst out. After several months on the ward, Gloria is joined by a young black woman Merle – who is silent where Gloria is loud, and is full of fear.

The stories of these women are told in two first person parallel narratives, their voices are quite distinct. As the two women get to know one another gradually so do we, they are both finding it difficult to communicate with the doctors, so have agreed to journal the stories of their pasts. Gloria is something of a joker she has quite the line in witty repartee and her voice brings a little light relief to a novel about a psychiatric ward. She is in her fifties, grieving still for the death of her partner Josie. I fell in love with Gloria – I just wanted her to sing her song – everyone tells her she must behave, she must moderate her behaviour, quieten herself – but in doing so she loses something of herself. As the novel opens Gloria is getting frustrated by her time on the ward, she just wants to go home. When Merle arrives in deep distress Gloria manages to use the chaos to get off the ward, walk out the hospital and catch a bus home, where she lets herself into her house and revelling in the silence has a bath.

“I’m going home. Just the thought is enough to make me want to sing. But singing is what caused me all this trouble in the first place and got me on the ward, so I suck my lips and try to keep the sound from bursting out. Can’t help it though. The sound fills up the bus. Soon I am singing like I never sung before.”

Needless to say, Gloria soon returns to the ward, now she begins to get to know Merle, slowly at first – for a while Gloria only refers to her as the new patient. She observes her, she sees her terror her quiet and wants to help, her instinct is to be a friend. Merle’s voice is clearly more hesitant, quieter, and less confident – especially at first. However, something of the warmth that Gloria has begins to get through.  

“The sun was shining

This is a house and a tree and a girl and a mummy and a daddy and the sun is shining.

She has to concentrate. A few short lines are all she’s written down in more than an hour. She tries to think but catching thoughts before they slip away again seems to be beyond her.”

As well as Merle’s own voice we are introduced to the voices in her head – those voices that tell her she can’t, or she’s wrong, that bully and harangue. Merle is in her twenties and has a husband somewhere who she married at seventeen following some difficulties at home growing up.

Both women are medicated while on the ward, and we both see and feel the effect of this – as their personalities and feelings are dulled with their thoughts becoming less clear. Through the eyes of these two women, we see the ward and some of the other patients, the staff and the way patients like them are treated. The frustration when an opinion or a request is ignored or over-ruled – the struggle to be the way others are asking you to be, the feeling you have to comply.

“Don goes to fetch Dr Raines. Three against one but still they have to use reinforcements. They don’t care if she is petrified and in a state of shock. Instead, they get her to the floor and hold her down. Hilary still whispers soothing things but Louise stands over her and waits for Dr Raines and the hypodermic needle.”

The system is shown to be imperfect at best – both of these women are let down; both are told they must behave in a certain way in order to secure release. Some readers may wonder (as did my book group) whether Gloria should ever have been hospitalised at all – it was an interesting discussion point for us.

There are some lovely moments between Gloria and Merle as over time a fragile trust grows up between them and they finally find a strength in their shared experience as they navigate the system in which they find themselves.

This was such a good read, I loved the character of Gloria so much, and the stories of these women while often poignant – and sometimes enraging are in the end memorable and full of hope.

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