If you’ve ever had the feeling that your life isn’t your own, that the life you’re living is just a little bit off-kilter, than you’ll find a lot to identify with in Gavin Extence’s second novel, The Mirror World of Melody Black.
Creatively-titled since the titular character isn’t the main character in the book and only occupies the middle to late section of the book, the book deals with the highs and lows of being bipolar, and the way in which the condition can leave you feeling as if your life is the mirror version of the one you though you were leading or would like to lead.
The central protagonist Abby is a freelance journalist, a child of divorce and a survivor of mental illness which first affected her back in her mid-teens who has many of the usual concerns any of us do.
She’s trying to pay the bills, isn’t quite satisfied with the state of her career or her relationships with her dad or sister Francesca but is content and happy-ish with her boyfriend of three years Beck, and accepts that life has its ups and downs.
“Odd as it may sound, I hadn’t known Melody’s surname up to this point. Mrs Chang aside, I don’t think there was another service user who surname I did know. We only ever used first names, as did the staff when they addressed us. So this was the first time I knew Melody as ‘Melody Black’, and straight away it was a name I loved. It was so gloomy and lyrical it could have been a line from a Sylvia Plath poem.” (P. 210)
All so good so far; what throws her world off axis one night is the discovery of her neighbour Simon’s body in his flat across the hallway; she barely knew him so initially accepts that his death might not necessarily leave a blubbering,m emotionally-thrown mess.
What she isn’t prepared for is the lack of anything that follows the discovery of his body; in fact so preternaturally calm is she that she has the presence of mind to grab the can of tomatoes she came over to borrow and goes back to cook dinner, barely troubled by the sort of event that leave anyone else, well most anyone else, a nerve-jangled, get-me-wine basket case.
There follows the slow unravelling of her life as insomnia, mania and then depression takes her from emotional hither to yon, leaving all kinds of chaos, big credit card bills and a thousand unanswered questions in her wake.
Abby wonders, more than once, what might have happened if she hadn’t found Simon’s corpse, if she hadn’t gone manic and then crashed, if she hadn’t found herself in the mental health ward of St Charles Hospital in London and if she hadn’t met Melody Black.
It’s all very Sliding Doors-ish, a what-if that is far more than an academic exercise as it explores what happens to the life of someone already teetering on the edge of sanity when a traumatic event occurs and sends them down a path they have little to no ability, without a lot of help which Abby thankfully receives, to come back from.
The importance of The Mirror World of Melody Black, which draws its title from the idea that mental illness is the obverse of your normal life or the real you, that you have somehow been sucked into a parallel world where you are not quite yourself, is that it bravely documents what it’s like when bipolarity or any other sort of mental illness takes your life off course.
Having some experience with this condition, which he documents in a confessional epilogue, Extence brings real insight and understanding, and more than a little wit and bravura, to the character of Abby who knows her life is not where she wants it to be but can’t quite get it where she wants it.
As her relationship with Beck hangs in the balance, and her career sits in limbo, Abby has to work out what it is she wants exactly, whether the compromises needed to keep her life on the proverbial straight and narrow are worth it, and if she cares about getting better and jumping from the mirror world of her mental illness back to her life as it is normally lived.
“We all have doubles. Everyone here has a double who’s taken over their life back in the original world. And we’ve realised what’s going on – at least on some level. That’s why we’re here. Whereas the doubles have no idea. They think they’re the originals, so they just go on with our lives as if nothing’s happened. You know: go to work, do the shopping, pay the bills. Jocelyn calls them the mirror people. They’re identical to us in almost every way.” (P. 196)
For all its themes of loss, upheaval and the darkness of feeling like you’re losing yourself to mental illness, The Mirror World of Melody Black is a bright, involving read, helped along by Extence imbuing Abby with a healthy amount of witty attitude and the willingness to call a spade a spade.
She’s a gloriously flawed character who, like all of us, knows what she should do to get the life she wants but can’t quite get there despite her best efforts and those of family, friends and mental health professionals.
The mix of light and dark, sardonic wit and fearful uncertainty works well for the book which takes a serious topic, gives it due deference and insight while never losing sight of Abby’s inherent humanity.
It is an illuminating, rewarding read for anyone seeking to gain even a little perspective on the way mental illness can affect a person, reminding us at every turn that those who deal with conditions like bipolar and schizophrenia are people like everyone else who simply want to reclaim their life from the mirror universe and get some sense of themselves back again.