You know those windscreen repair adverts with the saccharine jingle? The ones warning you how any chip on your windscreen can turn into a crack. I was lying awake the other night thinking (no, that’s not a bad case of blogger’s contrivance, it’s such an earworm I really was) how many books turn on this principle. Throw in the fragility of the human mind and you have the perfect way of describing The View on the Way Down, the extraordinary debut novel by Rebecca Wait.
The heart of the story is the suicide of of a young boy, and a double chip to crack journey that winds around itself like an ouroboros/moebius strip/double helix/any other metaphor critics love to use but don’t really understand. On the one hand the ripples (see, I knew there was another metaphor) from this event flow outwards through the boys family and in particular the life of his surviving siblings, the brother who walked out on the day of the funeral and Emma, the sister at the story’s centre, piecing back the jigsaw. It is also about the internal shockwaves working their way back in time from that moment, a story of how minds fracture and families fracture in their wake.
The metaphors, allusions and parallels, in fact, are so rife (think of a tradition whose finest roots lie in the American Gothic of Poe and Faulkner, a literary landscape where the cracked psyche is revealed of the surface of the families it contorts into the grotesque. Think of its British counterparts, from Wilde’s Dorian Gray to the disintegration of the narrator’s family in Josephine Hart’s Damage) that I had, at this point, better withdraw. Suffice to say, for all the allegorical richniess this is a book of exquisitely, painfully, beautifully constructed detail, a book that pours compassion and empathy upon its characters, a book that needs, demands, to be read as a perfectly-crafted account of mental illness and its insidious consequences. And for the brilliant scalpel it takes to the ubiquitous self-help platitude that “give it time and it will be all right” this is a book we should all be standing up to applaud.
So, enough from me. Suffice to say this is something we’re passionate about at eight cuts gallery. We’ve even themed a show on the subject. I was lucky enough to hear Becky talk about The View on the Way Down at the excellent Short Stories Aloud at Chipping Norton Literary Festival, and she was kind enough to talk to me about it afterwards.
1. The first thing that strikes me about The View on the Way Down is the title, which I love. It’s unsentimental and frank, which I think is very important, but I’m surprised in a way that Picador let it go out – were there any discussions about it, or about where the book would be positioned?
‘The View on the Way Down’ was always the title I had in mind whilst I was writing the book – it felt right to me. Interestingly, there was never any discussion about it later on. If I’d been asked to change it, I expect I would have – my instinct is to trust my publisher – but it would have been with a heavy heart. I think the way the book’s been presented also lends a certain ambiguity to the title at first glance (whereas its meaning becomes clearer as you read the book). For instance, the blurb Picador produced is fairly enigmatic, and I think this works well. In some ways the novel works best if you come to it without knowing too much, beyond that it’s about a shattered family. That way, the subject matter and certain revelations come as a shock to the reader, just as they do to the characters.
2. So much writing about mental health takes the form “don’t worry, it’ll all work out”. Were you conscious of avoiding any particular stereotypes or storylines?
I wanted to be truthful. That meant not being afraid to write a sad or harrowing book. Sometimes the story isn’t about how everything worked out in the end – it’s about how people have learnt to cope with the fact that it didn’t. But on the other hand, I didn’t want the book to be a miserable slog for the reader. I felt that it needed moments of humour and hope too, which reflected my own experience. I don’t think a book about mental illness has to be unremittingly grim.
3. Are you aware of how people have responded to the book (do you read or avoid reviews?) and has that surprised or pleased you?
I’m mildly terrified of reviews, though fortunately they’ve been positive so far. Having your work critiqued in such a public way is something you have to adapt to as a writer. At the moment it still feels weird to me, as I’m used to my mum being the only person who reads my stories. And she’s not exactly the harshest of critics. I generally do read my reviews – though warily.
But the best thing about publication has been the people who have got in touch to share their own experiences of depression, and to say that the book resonated with them in some way. I’ve found that quite unexpected and moving.
4. You have described writing the book as incredibly helpful to you – could you explain a little more about that?
The book’s based partly on my own experience of depression as a teenager. It was something that was very hard to put into words at the time – it was impossible to explain how I felt to other people, and impossible to explain it to myself. Writing the book was a way of going back and taking up that challenge. The process gave me a better understanding of what had happened to me, and also forced me to look it full in the face, rather than trying to erase it from my memory.
5. Some people are wary of fiction that “raises awareness” of an issue. How did you walk the tightrope between creating a self-contained world that functioned according to its own principles and saying the things you felt you had to say?
The story always comes first. I didn’t want to write an ‘issue’ book. I set out to write about a group of characters and a situation that really interested me, and to do it in a way that readers might find interesting as well. But at the same time, there were certain questions I wanted to raise in the novel – the kind of questions that had been bothering me for a while. I don’t think The View on the Way Down has any clear message or moral (or at least not one that people will agree on), but hopefully it does address some things that people aren’t always comfortable talking about – or even thinking about.
6. Moving onto more generally writerly matters, if you could have written any book in the past ten years other than yours, which would it be?
Ah, this is a game I sometimes play, though it usually leaves me feeling a bit deflated, given that I didn’t write whatever book it is… But at the moment, I’d probably say Mother’s Milk or At Last by Edward St. Aubyn. His prose is clear and sharp, and his observations are capable of flooring you.
7. And what do you think is the great unwritten book of the 21st century?
Interesting question, but I have no idea! I think sometimes the greatest novels are the ones that seem incredibly weird and surprising when they’re first published. Who could have predicted Ulysses?