A few weeks ago I tweeted the #writingcommunity to recommend me their chapbooks; the first response was @HLRWriter who recommended me her CNF chap, History of Present Complaint.
I read the summary on Amazon, and was interested enough in the premise to buy it. When I went to check out, however, I realized that the book is only offered on Amazon UK – which meant exchange rates and what I knew would be a lengthy shipping time. A little reluctantly, I went through with the transaction, and waited patiently for the book to arrive.
Arrive it did, a little bit ahead of schedule, on Saturday the 3rd and in my excitement I immediately began inspecting and reading.
History is approximately 86 pages long, and is roughly 5 x 8 inches in dimension. It has a glue binding which held up under (my very intentional) stressful bending, folding and other sorts of general fuck-housing – which means the binding didn’t crack and no pages were lost.
It has a lovely glossy cover which feels thick and durable, and is printed on reasonably good paper which doesn’t bleed under a highlighter or a fountain pen. The font is legible – Garamond, I think – doesn’t smear when you run a thumb over it and while it’s just a hair smaller than the standard, it’s still totally readable. Get some fucking glasses.
There is a content / trigger warning directly after the title page.
The contents is beautifully laid out and shows the care that was taken to put this work together.
DO NOT SKIP THE EDITOR’S NOTE. It details how the book is structured – as it’s not linear – and you will, at first, need this as a reference point as you make your way through the book.
The book details the story of a woman who experiences a psychotic break and is (involuntarily?) admitted to a psych ward in the UK. The story is presented in stream-of-consciousness style which leaps back and forth in time to events that happened prior to the break, the break itself and what happens afterward.
Reviewing this book is complicated; I have so many thoughts about it that I’m going to need to break the review into bite size portions.
- Time and Space
Non-linear story telling is easy to fuck up – just look at Netflix’s version of The Witcher (I said what I said, motherfuckers). It’s significantly more difficult to do this on paper than it is on film – there are no cinematic cues that let you know you’ve jumped backwards or forwards in time.
HLR did this masterfully; she let’s readers know where they are in her journey by titling sections and poems with the headings Present Complaint, History of Present Complaint and Post Complaint – the definitions of which are in the Editor’s Note that I told you not to skip, you asshole. All in all, the transition between time and space is seamless and makes sense. She makes a notoriously difficult style of story telling look like child’s play.
2. Style and Content
Complaint blurs the lines between genres; part creative non-fiction, part poetry, part stream of consciousness journaling which culminates in an incredibly authentic read that puts you inside her head as she’s going through these monumental crises.
What’s really unique about this is that – in the editor’s note that I fucking told you to read – HLR doesn’t say this is her story… she says it’s YOURS. “YOU suffered an acute psychotic episode, during which YOU were detained under Section 135 of the Mental Health Act.”
Very early on the boundaries between reader and writer blur, and you begin taking on her story as your own until you’re jolted back into your own reality when you realize “holy shit, I’ve felt that way before” and then are lulled back into the story again.
I want to point out a fucking BREATH-TAKING line on page 44, “You dragged myself to the kitchen and stood in the doorway.” Full stop. Read that again, do it slowly and hold that line for a few moments. You dragged myself. This is a mind blowing line; one that holds both the duality of reader and author and the coalescing of them simul-fucking-taneously!
There are pages and pages of lines like these that both parallel and juxtapose author and reader that make you stop, and think, and wonder.
I want to begin by saying this; you need to be mindful of how you approach this work. What I mean to say is this: it’s not a fucking sideshow for you to get your jollies off.
Complaint is important for so many reasons:
- It restores humanity, which has been robbed by society, and the System, to those who live with mental-illness.
- It depicts how very broken the Mental Health system is; simultaneously abusing and neglecting those who have the misfortune to find themselves jailed within it.
The testitucular fortitude required to be this honest and this vulnerable is Herculean – and HLR fucking NAILED IT. I want to both acknowledge and thank her for that bravery.
This is the book that Girl, Interrupted should have been – could have been – had Vintage had an ounce of backbone and didn’t neuter it to hell and back.
Is History of Present Complaint worth the exchange rate, and the long shipping time? Hell. Yes. I would buy if it was written in shit on a cardboard box. I would wait forever for this. I will re-read it fifty times over.
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