Book Review: Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother by MaryJane Thomson

cv_sarah_vaughan_is_not_my_motherThis is in bookshops now.

The interesting thing about reading memoir, for a seasoned fiction reader, is that memoir (being life) refuses to bow to any of the rules of fiction with which we are so unconsciously familiar. In fiction, if a character has an interesting and significant conversation with, say, a taxi driver, the taxi driver will undoubtedly turn up again later in the story. In memoir though, things happen in a random series of individual events, and any attempt at unravelling or predicting what will happen next is thwarted by the untidiness of life.

In MaryJane Thomson’s Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother, this disconnect is even more evident as the main character, MaryJane herself, is in the throes of psycho-affective disorder, has been sectioned under the mental health act, and is incarcerated in a mental health facility. MaryJane spends her days surviving the monotony of the ward with nicotine and black coffee, and creating artworks on the floor of her bedroom with cold tea, fruit and Coke bottles. To shake off her dependency on illegal drugs, she is numbed instead by prescription medication which, despite its many undesirable side effects, seems to do little to quiet the voice in her head.

The voice in MaryJane’s head is one of the most interesting characters in the book, and although it’s hard to know how accurate her depiction of this might be, it is an interesting and compelling account of what it might be like to live with this type of illness. Her voice variously tells her she is the incarnation of Jesus, has been violently assaulted by pretty much every member of her family and all her friends, and that she is actually black, the natural daughter of music legends Jimi Hendrix and Sarah Vaughan, but that she was “bleached” at birth to disguise her origins.

MaryJane sometimes obeys the voice, sometimes believes it but is hesitant to act on what it tells her to do, and sometimes outright disbelieves it, and tells it so. Her reaction to the voice at any given point is a good indicator of her mental state throughout the book – the more mistrustful she is of the voice, the closer she seems to be to stable mental health.

The dialogue in the book is often quite stilted and unnatural, but it’s hard to tell whether this is the result of a writer unfamiliar with writing dialogue, or a deliberate choice to heighten the surreal nature of MaryJane’s situation. Whichever it was, I found it quite distracting, and more liberal use of contractions (e.g. “I’ve…” rather than “I have…”) and more attention to the natural rhythms of the dialogue would have increased the book’s readability.

The other thing I found unusual about the book was the portion of her story that MaryJane has chosen to tell. Rather than describe her first descent into mental ill-health, or her climb out of it towards recovery, this memoir describes a rather arbitrary section in the middle. Only the author’s note gives us any contextual information about MaryJane, and the epilogue feels a bit tacked on the end. The book itself lacks any sort of character arc, or definite beginning, middle and end, although this is another peculiarity of memoir, as opposed to fiction.

MaryJane’s story is compelling, and provides an honest but sympathetic portrayal of what it is like to be sectioned under the mental health act, suffering from a psychiatric disorder. I would particularly recommend this book to anyone who has a friend or family member going through any sort of struggle with mental ill health, or anyone who has worked in or is interested in working in the mental health sector.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother: A Memoir of Madness 
by MaryJane Thomson
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551802 (paperback)
ISBN 9781877551819 (e-book)

1 thought on “Book Review: Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother by MaryJane Thomson

  1. Pingback: It is morning. Again. I woke up. Damn it. | NZ Fiendishly Fiends Fabricated Withdrawal Fables

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