Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Circles Around the Sun by Molly McCloskey

233 pages
Non-Fiction: Autobiography / Memoir


When Molly McCloskey was a young girl, her brother Mike - fourteen years her senior - started showing signs of paranoid schizophrenia. By the time Molly was old enough to begin to know him, he was frequently delusional, heavily medicated, living in hospitals or care homes or on the road.

When Molly reached the age Mike was when he became ill, she found herself suffering from deep anxiety and drinking heavily. She knew that schizophrenia runs in families, and at times the anxiety was so bad as to make her wonder about her own sanity. As the years passed, years when Molly — having moved from the US to Ireland — hardly ever saw or heard from her brother, she became deeply curious about his life and about what might have been. Through reading an astonishing archive of letters preserved by her mother and grandmother, and interviewing old friends of Mike’s, she began to piece together a picture of his life, before and after the illness struck — the story of how a gifted and well-liked student and athlete was overtaken by a terrible illness that rendered  him unrecognizable.

Now, in Circles in the Sun, she tells that story — which is also the story of her own demons and of how a seemingly perfect family fell apart and, in the end, regrouped. It is a work of extraordinary intensity and drama from a wonderfully gifted writer.

My thoughts

“But it isn’t always those closest to us who see things clearly, or see them coming.”

I always find it harder to review non-fiction books than I do fiction. With a fictional tale there’s the question as to whether or not I liked it, enjoyed it, could lose myself in a different world and felt a connection to the characters. Of course those are aspects I don’t get to investigate with a memoir / biography, especially one that tells the tale of something as stark as schizophrenia.

On the other hand, there are a few things I can and will ‘judge’ all books on, such as the question whether or not the narrative was well written and how easy or hard it was to stick with the tale. So I’ll talk about that.

Circles Around the Sun is a very well written book. Apart from the fact that I’m convinced the author did all the research required to give her personal story a factual backdrop, she managed to turn what could have been yet another ‘woe-me-tale- into an intriguing and informative narrative in which the mixture of personal and general information was just right for me personally.

“What the rest of us will do is reinterpret that past. We will say there were signs — the separateness, the sensitivity, the bouts of introspection inappropriate to his age — but this may have less to do with him than with a desire to console ourselves. For some reason, we must believe that there were clues and that we saw them. That it was a secret he couldn’t altogether keep from us.”

This book is brutally honest, or at least, it reads as such. It can’t have been easy for Molly McCloskey to publicly confess to her long lasting indifference to her brother and the struggle he’s living, or to their parent’s inability to recognise that something is wrong. Still, it is the combination of almost clinical distance and heartbreaking detail that made this book both an intriguing and devastating read.

And yet, no matter how much it sometimes felt as if the author had distanced herself from the person and problem she was writing about, the book feels deeply personal. She doesn’t spare herself, doesn’t try to excuse her thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and doesn’t hide from her own struggles with mental health issues. That wasn’t always easy to read, and there were times when it was very easy to actively dislike Molly, but underneath it all was her desperate need to discover what had happened to her brother, her family, her life, and that desire was so understandable that I found myself relating to the author more often than I wanted to criticize her.

“Anxiety is essentially the condition in which fear is fearing itself. (…)If alcoholism is the condition that keeps telling you that you don’t have it, anxiety is a state of mind that keeps reassuring you that you are in its grip.”

And I can’t deny that the book was filled with more than a few statements and insights that spoke to me, such as the one below.

“Hell, of course, is not other people. Other people are merely irritating. Hell is the unrelieved self.”

Only a few days ago I finished When Light is Like Water a book I was less impressed with than I’d expected to be based on all the positive blurbs I’d seen. Now that I’ve finished Circles Around the Sun I have to admit that Molly McCloskey is indeed very good with words. Her descriptions, be it of people or of places, are vivid and her writing flows. But, I also think I much prefer this non-fictional work over the novel. And that’s saying something because I’m not really a non-fiction reader.

In my review for When Light is Like Water I wondered how much of the story was auto-biographical. This book answers that question with a resounding: quite a bit. The escape to Ireland, to the marriage to an Irishman, the house at the foot of a mountain, and the journeys to Kosovo, and Africa are all occurrences in both Alice and Molly’s life. So despite Molly saying in an interview on Irish radio that the her novel contains a kernel of truth around which she constructed a fictional story, I’m inclined to think it may be a wee bit more than ‘just’ a kernel. But then again, as she says in Circles Around the Sun, our memories and our realities can’t always be trusted. Why wouldn’t the same be true for what we see as fact and fiction?


Related Review: When Light is Like Water

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