Up From the Blue by Susan Henderson
Even though 2011 is still new, I suspect this debut novel from US author Susan Henderson will be one of my standout reads of the year. It's remarkable because of the way the author climbs so completely into the head of a troubled child. Although midway through credibility is stretched, by then you're so firmly entrenched in Tillie Harris' dysfunctional world that you want to believe even the most unlikely turn of plot.
The story opens with the grown-up and pregnant Tillie in the middle of a crisis. She has just moved house, her husband is away on business and she's having sudden labour pains. Scared, confused and vulnerable, forced to turn for help to her father from whom she is estranged, Tillie's mind goes back to another difficult time in her life, her childhood on a US air force base. "Our neighbours didn't know exactly what the trouble was inside our home," Tillie tells us. "I don't think any of us understood it either."
Through the eyes of the young Tillie we meet her tough disciplinarian military father and the mother she adores, who brings her night-time drinks in a special cup covered in rubies, shops impulsively for pretty, glittery things and sometimes spends days in bed refusing to move.
This is the story of a child trying to make sense of her world and Henderson does a masterful job of letting her readers see it through a child's eyes, but understand it through an adult's.
The characters are beautifully drawn: Tillie's father, ill-equipped to deal with his emotional wreck of a wife; her brother who survives the awfulness in his own buttoned-down, repressed fashion, and Tillie herself, heroic in a messed-up sort of way, spirited, confused, loyal and lovable. It's when Tillie's mother inexplicably disappears that the story lurches a little towards the improbable.
So yes, the plot is flawed, but this is still one of the most engrossing and sensitively written portraits of a family struggling with mental illness that I've read. A rewarding read.