6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘The End of the Affair’ to ‘Your Voice in my Head’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s been a couple of months since I participated in Six Degrees of Separation^. It always seems to sneak up on me and then I lose the energy or inclination to take part. I’ve been feeling decidedly lacklustre of late and this week I discovered why: I am anemic and my Vitamin D levels are low. So on to the high-dose supplements, under my GP’s supervision, we go — and after a few days’ dosage, I’m already feeling better (although I know it’s going to take months to get my iron levels up).

But anyway, on with the show! As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘The End of the Affair’ by Graham Greene (1951)

This dark but compelling tale is about a doomed love affair that takes place in 1940s war-torn London. Maurice Bendrix, a successful writer, falls for Sarah Miles, the wife of a dreary civil servant with whom he has struck up a business relationship. For five years Maurice and Sarah conduct an illicit, passionate affair until Sarah calls it off without warning or explanation.

Another book about a love affair during the Second World War is…

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H.E. Bates (1944)

I always describe this novel as the loveliest book about war you will ever read. It tells the story of a Royal Airforce pilot who crash lands in Occupied France, together with his crew of four, and is nursed back to health by a young woman with whom he falls in love. It’s not a sappy romance, though, for there are dangers lurking everywhere — can the woman and her family be trusted not to betray them to the Germans, for instance — and the pilot is caught in a heart-breaking dliemma: should he stay or should he go?

Another book about forbidden love in France is…

‘Lie With Me’ by Philippe Besson (2019)

This modern romance is about first love between two teenage boys in rural France in the 1980s. Their affair, kept hidden because of the shame surrounding homosexuality at the time, begins in winter but is over by the summer. During those few intense months, their love is passionate but furtive. For both boys, it is a sexual awakening that has long-lasting repercussions on how they live the rest of their lives.

Another book about gay love in prejudiced times is…

Fairyland by Sumner Locke Eliott

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott (1990)

Published after the author’s death, this novel is supposedly a thinly veiled memoir based on his first-hand experience keeping his homosexuality secret. Set largely in Sydney, the book explores what it is like to grow up in the 1930s and 40s hiding your real self from the world. It is a heart-rending, intimate and harrowing portrayal of one man’s search for love in an atmosphere plagued by the fear of condemnation, violence, prosecution and imprisonment.

Another novel with similar themes is…

The Waking of Willie Ryan by John Broderick

‘The Waking of Willie Ryan’ by John Broderick (1963)

This story — of a man who escapes an asylum in rural Ireland to confront the people who put him there — is a damning indictment of how easy it once was to remove troublesome people from society by merely labelling them “insane”. Willie is not insane and probably never has been. But he has dark secrets, about his childhood, about his love for another man, about the real reason he was incarcerated in a mental institution all those years ago.

Another book about escaping from a psychiatric unit is…

‘My Friend Fox’ by Heidi Everett (2021)

In this evocative memoir, we learn what it is like to be a resident on a psych ward, where every facet of your life is controlled by rigid medical protocols and unwritten rules. Everett has spent much of her adult life in and out of psychiatric institutions. Her story shows the devastating impact of mental illness on one person’s life, but despite the trauma at its heart, this survivor’s tale brims with hope and optimism.

Another memoir about a woman struggling with mental illness is…

‘Your Voice in my Head’ by Emma Forrest (2012)

Emma Forrest was a successful young music journalist when she tried to take her own life. She developed a close relationship with her therapist, but when he died unexpectedly (of lung cancer) she was left distraught. This memoir is not only an unflinchingly honest account of her psychiatric problems, it’s an insightful look at grief and what it is like when a patient loses someone they trust and rely upon. Oh, and it’s also about a doomed love affair — with the Irish actor Colin Farrell who is referred to as GH (which stands for Gypsy Husband) throughout.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a novel about a doomed love affair to a memoir about a doomed love affair, via tales of forbidden love and a memoir about life on a psychiatric unit.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

^ Check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Emma Forrest, London, memoir, New York, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Your Voice in My Head’ by Emma Forrest


Non-fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 224 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I first requested Emma Forrest’s Your Voice in My Head it was on the basis that it sounded like an interesting memoir, a kind of modern day Bell Jar, about an English-born writer who tried to commit suicide in New York and the psychiatrist who saved her.

What I didn’t know was that much of the book revolves around a relationship that Emma had with a Hollywood movie star that ends rather abruptly and leaves her feeling bereft. He’s not named in the book and is referred to as GH (which stands for Gypsy Husband) and sounds quite lovely and interesting, albeit a little flakey. I was so intrigued by their romance and then the outfall of their break up that I couldn’t resist Googling to see who GH really was.

Suddenly, it all clicked and fell into place.

Hollywood romance

Perhaps I’m the only person on the planet that, up until a few days ago, did not know that Colin Farell and Emma Forrest were once an item. (To be honest, until I started reading this book, I didn’t even know who Emma Forrest was — turns out she had a rather meteoric rise as a teenage music journalist, before penning her first novel aged 21; she’s now a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.)  But to dismiss this memoir as a kiss-and-tell about Colin Farrell would be wrong. It’s not.

If anything the memoir is about grief and what it is like when a patient loses their trusted and much relied upon shrink. In Emma’s case her psychiatrist, Dr R, died quite unexpectedly of lung cancer in 2008. She only discovered he had died two weeks after the fact when she rang his office and got the answer machine.

In this memoir, Emma uses Dr R’s death as a springboard to write about the way in which this cheerfully optimistic and deeply supportive therapist helped her on the road to recovery after her failed suicide attempt in early 2000. What emerges is an unflinchingly honest account of Emma’s psychiatric problems — she would sit up at night and pray to die when she was 12, began self-harming at aged 16 and became bulimic when she moved to New York aged 20. She entered a succession of damaging relationships and would go through manic phases where she worked all night and slept all day. A stint in London’s Priory did not solve her problems.

No way out

She gives a wonderful account of what it is like to be caught up in a self-destructive routine — for Emma this was cutting her body and bingeing on food she would force herself to throw up — from which you can see no way out:

Chicken and egg: which comes first, looking at yourself with burst blood vessels on your eyes and vomit in your hair and having to cut yourself because you’re so ugly? Or eating everything in the cupboard to try to hold down how ugly the cutting has made you? It is madness. And if you don’t know who you are, or if your real self has drifted away from you with an undertow, madness at least gives you an identity.

But the memoir is far from self-pitying. While there is much heartfelt frankness, the tone throughout is self-deprecating. It helps that she comes from an eccentric Jewish family because the little asides she shares, particularly about her slightly barmy father, are endearing and very witty. Her ability to see the funny side of things makes the book an entertaining read. For example, here’s a couple of sentences — out of many — that made me giggle:

I hate it when Beyoncé wins a Grammy and in her speech thanks God. He didn’t have time to help out in Darfur but he made sure you won an MTV Moonman.

There are witty lines like this peppered throughout the narrative.

Heartfelt tribute

And there’s something quite optimistic about Your Voice in My Head because it is ultimately a tribute to a doctor who helped a patient find herself. In many ways it is ironic that just when Emma begins her romance with GH and discovers true love for the first time, Dr R dies and she is unable to share her happiness with him. That the romance ultimately fails only serves to make Emma stronger and more able to cope with the unpredictability of life.

Dr R and GH were, to me, two sides of a coin. They made me feel so good. They made me feel I was a good person. They saw something else. They saw me.

Your Voice in My Head is an articulate, wise, funny and sad read. It is about to be made into a film and latest reports are touting Emma Watson, from the Harry Potter films, as the lead. But I can’t help but wonder whether GH will play himself…?