“Catch Me When I Fall” Nicci French (Penguin)
Billed as a thriller but actually about friendship, specifically between the two narrators, Holly and Meg, but well-drawn enough to widen to friendships generally.
Apparently successful Holly Krauss is out of control and it takes quiet, serious Meg to anchor her back in. Holly’s bipolarity (manic depression) is compassionately and realistically drawn. “Catch Me When I Fall” acknowledges there are positives to bipolarity and doesn’t just portray the negatives. This is constant worry about books, fiction or non fiction, that use bipolarity as a crucial element of the book. (For how not to do it see Danielle Steel’s “His Bright Light”). In “Catch Me When I Fall”, Holly’s allowed to enjoy the highs, hate the paranoia and use lithium to pull her back from suicidal despair. More importantly, she’s allowed to sort out her own problems. Meg creates delays to buy Holly some breathing space. But Holly is not babified. There’s no patronising ‘keep taking the tablets and let everyone else control your life for you’ message. Holly does take the drugs but also wins back control.
If any character is babified, it’s Holly’s husband, Charlie, who regresses into a spoilt child. The book’s main intrigue is the contrast in the ways Meg and Charlie respond to Holly. The real, hinted at but tantalisingly unexplored theme is personal responsibility. Holly is prepared to repair the damage to her relationships, to repay debts, to acknowledge she’s been ill but still carries the responsibility for her actions. Charlie pouts: instead of acknowledging Holly’s recovery, he’d rather seek reparations and a nomination for sainthood, claiming she’s responsible for the way things have turned out for him when she can barely take responsibility for her own actions. Sensible Meg puts friendship first. She takes on Holly’s responsibilities without expecting reward or repayment. She is also quick to return those responsibilities when Holly is able to cope with them.
Normally I cringe at books that use mental illness as a necessary plot device, but the husband and wife team that are Nicci French has done their research and so avoided cliche and reinforcing stigmas. But I still wait for the day when a character’s mental condition has no influence whatsoever on the plot. And it’ll probably be the same day that a popular soap opera includes a wheelchair user where the wheelchair has no bearing on the plot, but the character just happens to need to use one.
Did I mention “Catch Me When I Fall” was a thriller? Well, the thriller element is that submerged, to explore it would be to give away the ending. So I won’t.