Part One, written May 2020: In The Margins.
I spent most of my childhood and teenage years hiding in libraries; nowadays – thanks to the internet – I carry my own personal one around in my pocket wherever I go. This doesn’t mean I don’t still stop and lose track of time in bookshops and bookstalls, though. In fact, this morning, on my lockdown-permitted-exercise walk, some lovely person had left a storage container full of books at the end of their front garden, with a note on it inviting passers-by to pick one, or leave one for others who might be in need of a random lockdown read. I couldn’t help myself – I paused for a look.
The thing I love most about reading second-hand books is finding bits of other stories inside them: forgotten bookmarks; ticket stubs; Biro-ed dedications; and best of all, notes scrawled in the margins. In the books I own, I am a margin-scrawler. Many people believe that this is defacing someone else’s work, but to me, it’s adding to it. Stories are inextricably linked, and in any case, what one reader gets from a book will be different to the next, and that’s the beauty of it. Perception is everything.
The (D)Evolution of Us is an exploration – or explanation – of those ideas. The novel is a noir existential thriller, set in a small Devon town at the turn of the 21st century, and is told from the view points of the three protagonists, Richard, Kayleigh and Catherine. The girls are best friends. Catherine is dead.
Mental illness, personal history, personality and perception drive the actions of all three as they struggle to make sense of their lives and their agency; whilst living in a town where everyone appears to know everything about everyone else, and the days roll away in a work-pub-work-pub cycle.
This is my debut novel, and its origins lie in my own existential dread. In the end, I decided to wholeheartedly pursue the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do – write – and if there’s ever a starting point to anything, the story of Richard, Kayleigh and Catherine is it for me.
If you come into possession of the paperback, feel free to write in the margins.
Part Two, written early September 2020: It’s Bonkers on the Bookshelves.
When I was in my late teens, I fell in love for the first time. It was with a guy who was a bit older than me, had his own flat and his own car (he didn’t just borrow his mum’s), had a ‘proper’ job, was a bit ‘weird’, and loved music in a way no one else I knew did. His flat was basically a sea of CDs and tapes, with a bed, a window seat and a cooking area braking the surface, like islands.
The CD he was most into at the time was one by Crowded House. I’d never heard of them before, but now, whenever I hear Neil Flynn’s voice, I am transported back to that time. Anyway, one of the tracks on the album was called Together Alone. In my opinion, it was the second worst track musically, and had the worst title – it didn’t even make sense!
Ironically, during the course of the relationship, I learned that it did, in fact, make a great deal of sense.
At the time, I was in recovery from many years of severe mental illness via medication and the mental health services, and I was sure that soon I would be ‘cured’. Once I was cured, I would move to America and become a writer. Simples.
No one I knew of had experienced, or was experiencing, any of the things I had (apart from Richey from the Manic Street Preachers), and now that I was feeling better and had a diagnosis, I kind of enjoyed being called ‘weird’ and all those other things. It had given me an identity. I was unaware that other people close to me were feeling their own brand of existential dread, and were struggling inside their own heads, and that this didn’t necessarily show on their faces, or manifest in a way that necessitated intervention. I also thought that mental illness (which wasn’t a term that was familiar to anyone I knew – and certainly wasn’t a social dialogue) was like chicken pox – once you’d had it, and had been treated, you were cured and could never get it again. I expected to become a confident, happy, successful person, like everyone else, once I’d been Abracadabraed.
While I was waiting for the Abracadabra to take place, I drank lots of alcohol like everyone else did. I had no idea it would react with my tablets. I had no idea that the poor lad I loved had his own problems, and needed some alone time for his own sanity– in my eyes, being ‘together’ meant being together all the time. I thought he drove around all night because he was cool. We were, indeed, together, alone. Perception, as lots of people have said lots of times, is everything.
The relationship ended. I found solace in reading and writing – as I always have – you can lose your mind, but also find yourself in a book. Eventually, I wrote The (D)Evolution of Us.
One of the readers who very kindlyleft me a 5-star review, commented that they could tell that the novel had been cathartic in its writing. They were quite right.
TDofU explores what it feels like to live with a mental illness; how it affects and combines with your personality, your perspective, your friendships, relationships, every aspect of your life – your Reality. I wanted to do this to be part of – and add to – the #MentalHeathAwareness dialogue. I wanted to help, indirectly, via a chilling story that gives you something to think about.
Everything is connected – consider the push for a greener environment; the spread of Covid-19; the way events of hundreds of years ago have left deep scars in our collective psyches, culture and society.
In TDofU, Richard’s and Kayleigh’s pasts affect Catherine in profound ways, and on it goes.
So, what to do to lessen having a potentially negative unintended impact on others? Try to make the best of each day, try to be the best people we can be, – and hope! We are together, alone; unique but inextricable from each other; we are different things to different people at any given moment both in our actions and according to the perceptions of others.
But don’t dwell on it – escape into someone else’s world for moment – read a book. You might lose your mind – but you might find yourself. After all, isn’t that the beauty of reading – that it’s bonkers on the bookshelves?