Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith — 194 pgs

Lillian is in an acute state of mental crisis. After attempting to take her own life with a lethal cocktail of pills and alcohol, she’s taken to a psychiatric facility. While Lillian may seem like a normal young woman, her mind is filled with strange sexual delusions and hallucinations that make every day seem like a nightmare to her. As Lillian’s mind slowly unravels, pieces of her past come racing to the forefront of her consciousness. An overbearing and emotionally unstable mother who clings to Lillian like a life preserver is only one of the things that’s holding her back. Lillian is also dealing with the ever consuming sense of guilt over her father’s stroke and brain damage, which is undoing both him and her as she is confined to the padded room of the ward. As Lillian learns more about the people who share the facility with her, she discovers more about herself and the shaming fantasies that are crumbling her. It’s only when she begins to trust her doctor and to begins digging into her torturous past that Lillian is able to find some semblance of normality among the refuse that is her mind. In this intensely provocative new novel, Leora Skolkin-Smith presents her readers with a woman who’s helplessly trapped inside the memories of her life; memories that are day by day eating away her sanity.

Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot about various mental states in literature. In one way, I think my curioisity about other people has extended outward to such a degree that I felt it was necessary and even important to read these types of books, and in another way, I also read these books as a way to understand some of the people in my life who deal with issues like these. Often these types of books can be scary and depressing, and so for awhile now, I’ve been backing away from them in an effort to keep from overwhelming myself. As I read Hystera, I came back to a lot of issues that I had read about before, but in some ways this book felt less than genuine and less representative to me.

Lillian is obviously troubled with delusions and hallucinations that keep her from functioning normally. I won’t get into what exactly these hallucinations are, only to say that they are sexual in nature and extremely odd. When I came across the first scenario of her illness, I was worried that this was going to be a book that was so out there that I would have trouble with it. Eventually these delusions seem to calm down and I was able to look past them into the story itself. I had been wondering if the particular delusion that Lillian was suffering from had some symbolic meaning, but you know what? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and I was beyond the point of trying to scrutinize the weirdness in search of the meaning of these symbols. Suffice to say that Lillian was not well and that a lot of the ideas she had were ramifications of her helplessness and passivity.

Another thing that I found strange was the absence of pharmaceuticals in the ward that Lillian is assigned to. Everyone is pretty much out of control over there and there are incidents of disturbing behavior, both sexual and violent, but nobody is getting medication. This hardly seems believable to me. When Lillian begins to have strange delusions and reacts with violence towards the nurses and doctors, their way of handling things is to lock her in a room instead of giving her medication that may calm her delusions. Now, I’m not advocating for flagrant pill-pushing because often that’s not the answer, but in some cases medications can be a useful tool that enables patients to get over debilitating mental afflictions. It just didn’t ring true to me that all these people were just running around all over the place, not being medicated. I especially felt this way when one of the characters threw himself out of a window and fell to his death.

This book is set in the mid 70s, and as such, a lot of the societal issues that were in play during that time made their way into the plot. There were numerous discussions about Patty Hearst. The patients inside the ward were usually consumed by the things that went on in the world outside the locked doors and spent a lot of time speculating about them. As Lillian comes to break down her mental barriers and learns to be guided by the intrinsic truths of her emotions and mind, she begins to see that the genesis of these delusions is in her fear of her mother and her culpability in her father’s accident. As she struggles to normalize her worldview, things begin to fall into place and the shadowy recesses of her mind are scoured with a bright and healing light that expunges the fear and delusions that she has lately become enveloped in.

While this was an artistically interesting book, I felt that it didn’t feel authentic in a number of ways. Having read quite a few books on the plight of the mentally ill and their road to recovery, I felt that this book was a little bit of a lightweight. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it or that there weren’t some really interesting perspectives and ideas thrown into the mix. Though it wasn’t a favorite, I do have to admit that the strangeness of some aspects of the story was a tad addictive. An interesting, if not entirely genuine, addition to the genre.


Author Photo About the Author

Leora Skolkin-Smith’s first published novel, Edges, was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award by Grace Paley. Edges is in pre-production under the name The Fragile Mistress.

Leora was recently a panelist at The Haitian Cultural International Book Festival, The Miami International Book Fair, The Virginia Festival of the Book and The National Women’s Association. She is currently a contributing editor to readysteadybook.com and her critical essays have been published in The Washington Post, The National Book Critic’s Circle’s Critical Mass, Conversational Reading and the Quarterly Review, among other places.

Website | Facebook | Twitter

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Monday, March 5th:Veronica M.D.
Tuesday, March 6th:Jenn’s Bookshelves
Wednesday, March 7th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, March 13th:Book Hooked Blog
Wednesday, March 14th:Life In Review
Thursday, March 15th:A Bookish Way of Life
Monday, March 19th:The House of the Seven Tails
Tuesday, March 20th:Stiletto Storytime
Thursday, March 22nd:I’m Booking It
Tuesday, March 27th:“That’s Swell!”


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

27 comments:

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

Hi, I'm sad that you didn't believe the story and so didn't enjoy the novel. There weren't pharmaceuticals used in psychiatric hospials in the early 1970's, the time of this patient's admittance. Indeed, drugs like prozac and anti-depressants changed the entire landscape of the mental health field in the 1980's. The patient was given valium in 1974 and in some cases thorazine, a very strong anti-delusional psychotic an only used in extreme cases,As someone who witnessed the inside of a hospital in 1974, I am certain patients were running wild without being subdued by the medicines we know so well today. I felt a need to say this as explanation.
...but how a mental hospital runs now is markedly different than in 1974 and I wanted to clarify this for you.

Nymeth said...

This was such an interesting and nuanced review. I think you did an excellent job of communicating that you found the book enjoyable, interesting and worth reading even if not all aspects of it worked for you and some elements challenged your suspension of disbelief. Conveying this kind of ambivalence can be tricky, but you did a great job.

Beth F said...

Sounds like this really captures a time. It's not a topic or setting that would attract me, but the references to the social issues would be interesting.

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

It is was a wonderfully complex and nuanced review, and I'm sorry I didn't also say that! I was just worried that the 1970's mental health system was authentically represented..but what an intelligent and probing review and one I appreciated and admired very much!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I don't think I'd want to hear about sexual hallucinations, which is not to say it's not a legitimate subject, but I'm more of a keep-my-head-in-the-sand sort of person!

Anonymous said...

I thought this book was absolutely brilliant. But as someone whose former brother-in-law was in and out of mental hospitals in the 70s and another friend who had a psychotic break in the 80s, and there were no pharmaceuticals around then. I thought Ms. Skolkin-Smith captured what it would be like back then perfectly--in fact, staggeringly authentic. The past, after all, is very different from the present, and if you know anything about medical science, you realize that medications change radically.

I was felt the delusions were brilliant and subtle.

bermudaonion said...

I'm surprised drugs weren't used back then. When was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest written? Your review is wonderful, as always.

Aths said...

I would ordinarily have picked this book up simply because of its mental-issue theme, but you're right - some aspects don't seem to ring true and that would interfere with my reading. I will still keep an eye out for this one, since otherwise it feels interesting.

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

Hi Bermudaonion,

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was written in the fifties when they were actually doing lobotomies and electric shock therapy. If they used drugs at all it would only be for the severe cases and the drugs used were heavy anti-psychotics which literally rendered the patient dysfunctional and nearly unconscious.Patients back then were strapped to their beds. I know it's hard to believe but the recent revolution in drugs which started in the 1980's really, really changed everything.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

Great review! This one sounds interesting, but difficult to read. I haven't read many books with mental issues, but Outside the Lines by Amy Hatvany was incredibly written!

TheBookGirl said...

This is not a book that I would probably pick up, but I did enjoy reading your review. As always, you make clear what worked for you in the book and what didn't...

Audra said...

As usual, Heather, another thoughtful and nuanced review. I was on the fence about this book but I'm glad I didn't get it -- some of the issues and themes you mentioned would probably have freaked me out/irritated me.

Leora Skolkin-Smith said...

I also want to say how grateful I am that you took the time to read my book and consider it with your very special intelligence and caring, Im glad it opened some of these questions up for others.

thank you, Heather

Literary Feline said...

Thank you for another insightful review! As always, I appreciate your honesty and thoughtful assessment of the book.

Anytime I come across a book that is set in a mental institution, I think of one of my favorite historical figures who wrote a big expose on an asylum during the late 1800's. Totally off topic, but there you go. :-)

Amy said...

Thanks for this review. I find it interesting that it was written with little prescriptions being prescribed because from what I've heard, especially in the past, prescriptions for mental wards in hospitals were quite high right?

Suko said...

Excellent review of what sounds like an incredibly interesting book set in the 70s!

Harvee said...

You have to admire a writer for tackling a subject such as this. Glad there seems to be a happy ending!

Jenners said...

Hmmm…I'm not sure about this one. It sounds a bit out there and a tad too disturbing for me at this point. But, at the same time, there is something compelling about the subject matter.

Jenny said...

Fantastic review! I was wondering about the medication thing.. like if they used them back then. Guess not! That's scary. I'm not sure if this would be a comfortable read for me, though... ironic in some ways, I know, lol, but some of it sounds disturbing like Jenners said.

Aarti said...

Excellent review, as always! I think I'll give this one a miss, though. Sexual delusions are not for me :-)

Darlene said...

Great review Heather. I wish I had had the time to be on this tour but didn't. I find the premise of this one intriguing.

Ti said...

I also read a book recently that centered around mental illness but took the easy way out as far as plot. Mental illness is such a complex issue.

Jenny said...

But surely in the 1970s they wouldn't have had the same medical resources that we have now. I'm not up on the details of mental hospitals in former decades, but I'm pretty sure that a lot of the drugs we now use are of recent development.

(Just scrolled up and realized people have said this already, and now I feel silly. :p)

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I'm sorry this wasn't a favorite for you but I do appreciate you taking the time to read and review this book for the tour.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

Interesting review. Yes, some books sometimes don't match up to what have earlier been read or does not depict reality but it all depends on what the author is trying to come up with. Why wouldn't there be medication? Was she trying to achieve something? And I also agree that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and that it might be plain lack of adequate research in that area.

All in all, thanks for sharing this with us.

Amy said...

I read, really skimmed this review a week or so ago but since I was revieing the book, I waited to read it carefully.

I'm sorry you were disappointed by this book. I was interetsted to read a less than positive review from you since they're few and far between. You were as thorough and thoughtful with this review as with your positive ones.

You make some great points in this review. Aside from one single comment from a nurse about it being time for meds, as you said, there's no mention of medication being given to the patients and frequent mention of patients in the throws of a breakdown being put into the quiet room, issues I took note of, too.
Because I read this book as if the narrative was written from the point of view of Lilly's thoughts and ideas and the focus of her mind at a given time, I didn't find the lack of treatment discussed odd. But I definitely wondered more than once what kind of help Lilly was getting and, also, how ineffective her meeting were with Dr. Burkert.

I haven't read many books that center around mental illness and so this was a new experience for me. I'm intrigued by your familiarity and knowledge about books on mental illness. I wonder if there's any one or tow books in particular you'd recommend?

This is a wonderful review, Heather and gives me much to think about as Lilly continues to be a part of my thoughts!

Post a Comment

 
Blogger Template by Delicious Design Studio