July 31, 2011

Mental illness at the center of ‘The Storm at the Door’

"The Storm at the Door" by Stefan Merrill Block (Random House, 342 pages, $25)

"The Storm at the Door" by Stefan Merrill Block (Random House, 342 pages, $25)

Science has only begun to navigate the complexities of the human brain, less still the human mind. But author Stefan Merrill Block has managed to create two novels exploring what happens when things go wrong in the mind, focusing not on the science but on the humanity.

Block's debut novel, 2008's beautifully wrought "The Story of Forgetting," wove several stories around the theme of early-onset Alzheimer's: not the medical aspects as much as what it means to forget, and to remember, and what such a disease does to the people close to the afflicted.

His second novel, "The Storm at the Door," unspools a compelling story around mental illness, specifically, bipolar disorder when it was still called "manic depression."

Set in the 1960s, the story is loosely inspired by the lives of Block's grandparents, Katharine and Frederick, who live a comfortable suburban family life.

But the darkness that Frederick tries desperately to hide, and control, increasingly finds its way to the surface. Then one night, faced with jail after a drunken spree, Frederick is taken by his wife and friends to a mental hospital.

At first he — and Katharine — think it will be a short stay, a time for him to "get some rest." But as his treatment begins, both Frederick and his psychiatrist realize that there is more to his condition than exhaustion:

"The vast unknowable something: it is a consumptive, obliterating fathomlessness, but also a place of radiance, of astonishment, and of eternal complexity. And it is what Frederick senses is to blame for all his failures. Into the vacuum of itself, it has drawn everything that once seemed so simple and complicated. ... All he has accomplished in his career, the birth of his daughters, the people he has tried to love: all have seemed to promise respite, something good and knowable to obstruct this vast dark thing."

Frederick settles in at the Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill (based on the McLean Hospital in Boston), and gets to know some of the other patients, including poet Robert Lowell (who is fictionalized in this book but did spend time in the McLean Hospital). As readers, we also get a window into the lives of the psychiatrist and his main assistant, and the politics and practices of running a mental hospital.

Block's descriptions of the hospital, its staff, its residents and its workings are harrowing, poignant and at times quite funny. He refrains from condescending to or romanticizing the patients, instead telling their stories in a straightforward, humane way, yet with a poetry in his language that illuminates what little beauty there is in their situations.

The book alternates between Frederick and Katharine, peering into each of their now-separate lives.

Katharine, the "ethereal and tranquil mother, who has always been able to absorb others' abuse with bullet-trap imperviousness," has been left to fend for herself and her four daughters, increasingly worrying as savings run out and bills pile up. She puts on a brave face, of course — how can she not? —but the girls realize as the weeks go by that their father is not just gone for "a rest."

Her mundane worries are not as interesting as Frederick's travails in the hospital, but her emotions are no less deeply conveyed. The chapters set later in her life, when she wrestles with how much of the past to hold on to, strike the perfect balance of sadness and defiance.

The only problem with "The Storm at the Door" is that Block has handcuffed himself by basing it on the lives of actual people — he can't alter the outcome and so the ending fizzles.

But the rest of the book is a brilliant look into the bomb mental illness can set off in a family, and the effects of it that can be felt even generations later.

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