Monday, December 26, 2011

Helen on "Fresh Fields," by Peter Kocan

News from the Mental Health Summit at the University of Chicago as well as the Chicago News Cooperative’s excellent coverage of mental health services cuts in Illinois in the pages of The New York Times coincided with my reading Australian writer Peter Kocan’s autobiographical novel, “Fresh Fields.”

In 1966, as a teenager, Kocan tried and, fortunately, failed, to assassinate Australian labor leader Arthur Calwell. Though he was found to be a borderline schizophrenic and sentenced to life in prison, most of which he spent in a mental hospital, he was pronounced cured and released from custody after ten years. He began writing in prison and is now an acclaimed writer, having received a number of literary awards as well as obtaining advanced degrees.

“Fresh Fields” is the prequel to Kocan’s two novellas, “The Treatment” and “The Cure,” which I reviewed earlier. In it, he depicts the descent of a fourteen-year-old boy, to whom he refers only as "the youth," into insanity. (I've posted a fuller review over on my blog, Law and Conversation.) By the end of the novel, it's clear the youth has become so disturbed that he's going to explode. In the novellas, Kocan describes the same character's experiences, which are clearly his own, in a prison for the mentally ill. His stories and personal history made me wonder to what extent isolation causes people to develop mental illness. And, though it still carries a stigma, mental illness has touched most people’s lives. I admire Kocan and all those who are bringing their experiences out of the closet.

I'm crowing over exceeding my original goal for the 2011 Europa Challenge! I set a modest goal for myself of reading 4 new Europas to become a Europa Amie. Though I didn't read enough to become a Europa Amante, I did read more than enough - 8 in all - to become a Europa Haver. I'm signing on for 2012, again with a modest initial goal: Espresso level of four, though I feel pretty confident that I can at least achieve Cappuccino status. I didn't love every Europa book I read; see my review of Chad Taylor's "Departure Lounge" for an example of one that didn't work for me. But I found the experience of reading critically and writing about the flaws as well as the strengths of these books a good exercise. And, as I noted in my review of Taylor's book, I loved reading a story set in a faraway place.