I blame it all on Patrick McGrath–  this growing addiction to all things psychological.  I have a stack  of  fiction titles awaiting my attention in 2009.   More ominously, they’re accompanied by a smaller pile of non-fiction.  Lizzy’s Literary Life is obviously heading off in new directions in 2009.  But I digress.

Monica Janssens contacted me soon after I’d reviewed McGrath’s “Trauma” and her self-published novel has been patiently awaiting its turn in the TBR since then.  They say that only a former spy can write a good spy novel.  So I wondered how well a former inmate of the Priory, could fictionalise the goings-on within its fictional equivalent, the Cloisters, the eponymous Castle In The Clouds.

First things first.  Don’t be fooled by the chick-lit feel and the promises of light, fluffy, entertainment of the blurb extract.

It’s midnight, she’s in a nuthouse, and one of the inmates has tried to top herself.  Just when she’s convinced the night can’t get much weirder, in walks one of the world’s most controversial supermodels.

The book reads easily despite the human torment.  This is aided by the structure.  Each of the 5 main characters is apportioned a section devoted to their case history.  This engenders interest in their personal stories, treatments  and outcomes and that keeps the pages turning.  The reasons for their breakdowns are varied: family, relationships, corporate bullying, culture clashes and overnight celebrity.  The inhabitants of Cloisters form a microcosm of  the susceptible, fragile and damaged in our modern world.

The use of the omniscient 3rd-person narrator in each chapter allows for direct access into the character’s head and this leads to more telling than showing. This  is normally a problem but not here because the of the complicated nature of the back histories.   Janssens ‘ intention is to explain the nature of depressive illness and the triggers that result in the need for psychiatric intervention.  It’s an effort to dispel the stigmas which persist even in our enlightened times.  In the foreword she writes of her own experience:

After I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and panic disorder, a former colleague put an end to our friendship, while, at work, I was bullied, then fired under the thinly veiled disguise of redundancy.

What is interesting is that Janssens has chosen not to publish a volume of  autobiographical mislit, something which would possibly have been much easier for her to write.  Her guest post, on Vulpes Libris, has much to say about that.  By examining a range of characters from both genders, of different age groups and from varying backgrounds, she is able to cast her eye wider and  to escape from the confines of a personal memoir into the landscape of  social commentary.  While necessarily sombre and,  in places,  dark, Castle in the Clouds,  is a truly illuminating read.