I'm lucky to have had no experience of bipolar disorder, in my own life or in the lives of those close to me, so it wasn't a subject I knew very much about. I mean, I'd watch people talk about it on television and knew what it was, but that's not the same as experiencing it first, or even second, hand. Now I've read this book I feel rather differently.
Our protagonist and narrator is Greyson Todd, who is trying to piece together the fragments of memory left to him as he undergoes electric shock therapy at a mental institution. It's been ten years since he abandoned his wife, daughter and stellar career as a Hollywood agent, and his decline has been slow and heartbreaking.
The format, with its multiple flashbacks, means we are essentially following three time periods in Greyson's life. The first begins on the day he left his old life behind and follows him as he wanders around the world, alternating between terrifying highs and crippling lows. The second begins when he is still a child and tracks his difficult relationship with his father, the early days of his marriage and the onset of his condition. The third follows what happens in the hospital and brings us eventually to the book's conclusion. It's a format that works really well and allows us to get to know Greyson inside out, so when he hits rock bottom we feel it keenly.
Greyson, underneath all the craziness caused by his illness, is a lovely man. He loves his family, he tries to be a good husband, father and friend, but the manic episodes that wash over him periodically cause his behaviour to become ever more extreme. A part of him feels that walking out on his family is the best thing he can do for them, but there's no real choice involved - he simply has to go. I would normally take against any character who simply leaves the house like that one day, but it's impossible to blame Greyson. The way the author manages to make him so human, so basically likeable in spite of all the terrible things he does is brilliant. When he behaves outrageously there's a small part of him that knows it's not normal and he tries in vain to fight against it. Hearing his thought processes as the mania began to take hold was quite a revelation and made me think about bipolar disorder in a completely new way.
The depressive stage of his illness is equally well portrayed. Greyson is a man in search of happiness and stability, but while his illness runs unchecked he is destined never to find it. The misery of depression, the lethargy and the total disconnection from anything but that inner blackness is perfectly described.
The book has been compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and I can see why people might say that, given the first person perpective. However, these are two very different books. Mark Haddon's book had a child protagonist, a peculiarly British setting and a lot of humour, but this is a very adult book with a very serious message. And yet, both books left me feeling that I'd really learned something and walked a mile in a very different pair of shoes.
I should also say a word about the book's ending. It is perfect. Realistic, thought-provoking and touching; it left me with a lump in my throat and a feeling of satisfaction as I turned the last page. The book isn't completely without its faults - there are some scenes from Greyson's travels which just didn't ring true - but for the most part this was an absorbing and very affecting read. Four stars.