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Poppy Shakespeare – Clare Allan

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As part of Mental Health Awareness Week Gemma Joyce, Games Editor, reviews Clare Allan’s brave and unusual novel.

poppy shakespeareClare Allan’s fun but unsettling novel on a seemingly sane individual thrown into the clutches of the dreary British mental health system, is a rare and brave attempt at tackling sensitive issues within mental health from the inside out, taking the reader on one hell of a journey on the way.

When Poppy Shakespeare, an impossibly normal woman dressed up to the nines, finds herself in a room full of ‘dribblers’ (day patients at the Dorothy Fish mental health hospital in North London) she can hardly believe her eyes. Desperate to return to life outside the hospital where her daughter awaits, Poppy longs to get out. This is much to the surprise of ‘N’, a fellow patient and unlikely new friend, whose sole ambition is to never be discharged.

Refusing to get used to the hospital, however, Poppy discovers her impossible position: in order to be discharged she must call on legal aid, but to pay for legal aid she must be declared sick to access MAD money (benefits provided by the Ministry for the Advancement of the Deranged). To leave, she must, conversely, pretend that her condition has worsened.

While it’s difficult to tell whether Allan is pointing a satirical finger at the current state of British mental health, or simply making a statement about the nature of madness and who has the right to apply such a label to another person, the reader is constantly on the side of the patients who just never seem to get better. This is mainly down to the failings of the hospital and the mindsets in which they have been trapped. ‘N’’s endearing commentary on the inner workings of the centre, as well as Poppy’s frustrations at the paradoxical problems faced in achieving her escape, drive a real desire in the reader for their conditions to improve, but the depressing realities of the system don’t always allow for such desires to be fulfilled.

With more cigarette butts, un-politically correct nicknames and imaginative uses of the ‘F-word’ than anyone can comfortably experience in a mere few hundred pages, Allan’s novel is a bold and uneasy look into a world that’s harder to swallow than the Dorothy Fish patients’ unwanted medication.

Gemma Joyce, Games Editor

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