Saturday 24 March 2018

Frank memoir about madness and a new Colombian cracker

Memoir: Mad Girl, Bryony Gordon, Headline, €16.99

Girl interrupted: Bryony Gordon has written a moving memoir about mental illness.
Girl interrupted: Bryony Gordon has written a moving memoir about mental illness.

Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon's new memoir about mental illness is a self-indulgent, self-flagellating, self-loathing book with a tendency towards oversharing. But you don't have to take my word for it, because that is Gordon's own description, laid out on page one. What you won't find, but is none the less true, is that Mad Girl is also a funny, warm and brave book and it must have taken some grit (or maybe just recklessness) to write.

Fans of Gordon's bestselling debut, The Wrong Knickers, her memoir of her badass, lost-girl 20s, won't be entirely surprised to discover that behind all the drunken parties and dodgy sex recounted in that first book was some seriously screwy mental chaos and it's to this that Gordon now turns her attentions.

And, boy, what a lot of chaos there was. By her early teens Gordon had added to the usual adolescent neuroses about not being popular, or attractive, or clever, some troubling obsessive compulsive thoughts and bizarre fears. She found it impossible to sleep without her blankie.

At 18 depression struck. Alopecia and bulimia followed. So did a fondness for cocaine which quickly became problematic, and by the time Gordon reached her mid-20s she was snorting more gak than a crowd at a Colombian carnival. Amazingly, none of this impacted on her rising reputation as a journalist, perhaps because Gordon was only too ready to cannibalise her party girl lifestyle in the service of good copy. One fed the other. She was the office "mad girl", the funster people love to take out to play but no one will quite admit to finding slightly alarming.

Why did things go so wrong? Gordon grew up in a "house with an Aga and a cat called Moppet", in a smart London suburb, with loving parents. And yet.

Sometimes, insists Gordon, "there isn't a reason for mental illness." It's an odd response to a central question, one which vividly contradicts most of the current research about mental illness (which Gordon does touch upon but does not explore at length) and suggests perhaps a desire to avoid too much deep self-reflection. How many kids write letters (never sent) to ChildLine, saying, "I am going through a hard time at school" and documenting their distress? "Completely ridiculous!" she says of the letters. "What a dreary human being I must come across as."

Later, she writes; "My body has never felt like mine, not really," but deflects again, by adding; "Does any young woman feel as if her body is hers anyway?" It's an important question. What is it that turns so many confident, happy girls into anxious, self-harming young women?

But it goes largely unexplored in favour of amusing vignettes of Bryony dancing with Anton du Beke, Bryony at Elton John's party, Bryony hoofing off round the world courtesy of Richard Branson, Bryony walking the Great Wall of China with Joan Rivers (which cues up the best joke in the book).

"Having visited the depths of mental illness, I have always had a healthy appreciation for life in the shallow side of the pool," says Gordon, before hurrying on to the more important business of being amusing.

It's pointless to expect any consistency or reasoned argument from Mad Girl. The book is as full of contradictions, switchbacks, swerves, sudden volleys and retreats as Gordon's head. But Mad Girl is a winningly frank, endearing and - dare I say - fun romp across the landscape of lunacy and a relieving read for anyone, like me, who has ever woken up with a screw loose and no toolbox to hand.

- Melanie McGrath

© Telegraph

Thriller:  Reputations, Juan Gabriel, Vasquez, Bloomsbury, €21.90

Latin American literature has moved on. In recent years Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes have gone to that gran libreria in the sky. Only Mario Vargas Llosa remains. And in his opinion "one of the most original new voices" is Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a 43-year-old Colombian who unashamedly rejects magical realism.

The author of three novels and a collection of stories, Vasquez has also translated EM Forster and Victor Hugo, written a biography of Joseph Conrad and won numerous prizes. His new novel, Reputations, addresses the consequences and complications that arise from such notoriety and acclaim.

To the bootblacks and barmen of Bogota, Javier Mallarino, his weary 60-something protagonist, is simply "the guy who does the cartoons". To Colombia's power brokers, however, he represents trouble. For 30 years Mallarino has been the political cartoonist for the liberal newspaper El Independiente.

He is "able to cause the repeal of a law, overturn a judge's decision, bring down a mayor or seriously threaten the stability of a ministry, and all this with no other weapons than paper and Indian ink". The tone is ominous from the start. We learn of Mallarino's failed marriage to Magdalena, a radio actress, and of his professional regret: he could have been a great painter, a Botero or Obregon, but gave up the oils for a lucrative byline.

He is haunted by the ghost of Ricardo Rendon, the Colombian caricaturist who walked into La Gran Via cafe on a winter's day in 1931, had a beer and then shot himself.

The storm clouds darken with the arrival of a young woman at a tribute to Mallarino. Pretending to be a journalist, she begins asking questions about an incident a quarter of a century earlier when a crime may, or may not, have been committed at his country house. What follows is a morality tale cloaked in a noir mystery.

Vasquez's Colombia is an "amnesiac country". Mallarino acknowledges that it is full of people "working hard to have certain things forgotten". His job is to offer up reminders, work that is heavily freighted with responsibility. And Bogota is an apt stage for such reckoning, with its mountain backdrop and metropolitan cliques there is an unsettling sense of a closed society in a widescreen landscape.

With this slim clever book about the ebb and flow of history, and its unreliable companion memory, Vasquez shows that Latin American literature has, whatever he has to say about magical realism, lost none of its magic.

- Christian House

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