Story of­fers a lu­cid glimpse of liv­ing life with a men­tal ill­ness

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Lind­say McKnight

ON a sunny morn­ing in Vic­to­ria, Glen, a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist, and his team find a killer whale beached on the shore, al­ready in an ad­vanced state of de­com­po­si­tion. Af­ter a pre­lim­i­nary ex­am­i­na­tion, the men are un­able to de­ter­mine the cause of death. The whale’s sick­ness, and the mys­tery sur­round­ing it, ef­fec­tively set the tone for the rest of the story. A bi­ol­o­gist her­self, Cana­dian nov­el­ist Ann Eriks­son lives on Thetis Is­land, B.C., near Vic­to­ria. High Clear Bell of Morn­ing is her fourth novel. Glen and Sy­bil’s daugh­ter Ruby has been act­ing strangely of late. Nor­mally a ge­nial and re­spon­si­ble young woman with high aca­demic stan­dards, Ruby has aban­doned her univer­sity classes, with­drawn from fam­ily and close friends, and flies off the han­dle at the least provo­ca­tion. When she be­gins scrawl­ing cryptic mes­sages on her bed­room walls and talk­ing of soldiers in the trees out­side her win­dow, Glen and Sy­bil seek a med­i­cal opin­ion. But noth­ing could have pre­pared them for the di­ag­no­sis: schizophre­nia. A neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal dis­ease, schizophre­nia counts hal­lu­ci­na­tions, delu­sions, para­noia, lack of en­ergy and at­ten­tion to per­sonal hy­giene, and im­paired judg­ment and rea­son­ing among its many symp­toms. It af­fects one in 100 people, both men and women equally, typ­i­cally be­tween the ages of 16 and 25. High Clear Bell of Morn­ing high­lights the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of those suf­fer­ing from a men­tal ill­ness, at the mercy of both crip­pling dis­ease and an im­per­fect, over­taxed med­i­cal sys­tem, where qual­i­fied doc­tors and easy an­swers are of­ten in short sup­ply. Like most schizophren­ics, Ruby is pre­scribed an ever-chang­ing ros­ter of drugs — anti-psy­chotics, mood sta­bi­liz­ers,iz anti-de­pres­sants and anx­i­ety pills — which ease the hal­lu­ci­na­tions, but leavele her feel­ing foggy and lethar­gic: “The thought of tak­ing a bath or get­ting dressed... made her want to crawl into a hole.” Al­though most of us can­not fathom what it’s like to live with schizophre­nia, or to be vir­tu­ally numbed by pre­scrip­tion drugs, Eriks­son of­fers up mean­ing­fulf glimpses, as when Ruby re­moves her clothesc and wan­ders out into the snow. “‘Ruby?’ Glen called... ‘Honey, what are you do­ing?’ She scribed an arc through the air with an arm. ‘Try­ing to feel.’ ‘Feel what, honey? What are you try­ing to feel?’ ‘Any­thing,’ she an­swered...” Mean­while, fur­ther tests have re­vealed that the killer whale’s body was chock-full of pol­lu­tants and chem­i­cals, and al­though the cause of death is of­fi­cially “un­known,” Glen draws his own con­clu­sions. Clev­erly in­ter­weav­ing Ruby’s con­di­tion with the plight of the killer whale, Eriks­son sug­gests they are both ca­su­al­ties of hu­man “progress” and tech­nol­ogy. Through additional re­search, Glen learns that al­though schizophre­nia is a bi­o­log­i­cal dis­ease, there are the­o­ries that it may be caused by in­fec­tion, or brought on by changes in diet, or ex­po­sure to tox­ins: “PCBs, DDT, methyl mer­cury, flame re­tar­dants. All of them mak­ing the whales sick. Mak­ing his daugh­ter sick?” Soon Ruby moves in with a fel­low pa­tient she met at group ther­apy, Kenny, and be­fore long, at his sug­ges­tion, she is self-med­i­cat­ing with co­caine and other street drugs. New ten­sions arise at home. While Glen takes ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to sup­port Ruby, Sy­bil’s an­swer is more rules and struc­ture — “tough love.” When Ruby phones to speak to her dad, Sy­bil is im­me­di­ately sus­pi­cious, ask­ing if Ruby was af­ter money, os­ten­si­bly for drugs. “Please, please don’t bring her home. It’s start­ing to feel nor­mal around here.” Eriks­son’s story deftly demon­strates how even the most stal­wart of fam­i­lies can dis­in­te­grate when faced with men­tal ill­ness, a wily, un­know­able op­po­nent that of­ten claims as its vic­tims not only the pa­tient, but their fam­ily mem­bers as well. There are a few prob­lems with Eriks­son’s nar­ra­tive in terms of plau­si­bil­ity. Though men­tal ill­ness takes an un­de­ni­able toll on ev­ery as­pect of one’s life, with the right drugs and ther­apy there is still hope for a fruit­ful, nor­mal life. But Eriks­son steers too wide of the mark with an al­most-mirac­u­lous sto­ry­book end­ing, per­haps not en­tirely rep­re­sen­ta­tive of re­al­ity for the vast ma­jor­ity of schizophren­ics. Still, Eriks­son should be ap­plauded, if only for ad­dress­ing a topic sorely in need of at­ten­tion.

Lind­say McKnight works in the arts in Win­nipeg.

High Clear Bell of Morn­ing

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