The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
Birds’ Nest Soup by Hanna Greally. Born in Athlone in 1925, Hanna Greally spent the best part of the 1940s and 1950s incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital in the Irish Midlands, following her mother’s unexpected death. In Birds’ Nest Soup she recounts with vivid detail the terrible suffering she endured there. Though mentally well – and accepted as such by the authorities – she was condemned to life in an atmosphere calculated to bring about the steady degradation of the person. But Hanna lived to tell this remarkable and poignant tale of survival.
Hunger by Knut Hamsun. A fictional story of a penniless, and resolutely obstinate, Norwegian writer living in Christiania (later to become Oslo) at the end of the nineteenth century. An insightful study of a mind continually teetering on the brink of falling apart.
Knots by R.D.Laing. A series of prose poems by the sometimes controversial psychiatrist, R.D.Laing, published in the 1970s and dealing with the complexity of relationships and personalities.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. A powerful anti-institutionalist novel by Kesey, one of the prime movers of American counter-culture in the 1960s. Set in an asylum, it moves quickly and startlingly between comedy and tragedy (see also Film category).
Regeneration by Pat Barker. Set during the First World War, this novel deals with the effect of warfare on the mind – mainly shellshock, included nowadays under the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although fictional, it is based on the work done at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland, and features Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, two of the First World War poets.
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. Two different perspectives – that of Dr Grene, the psychiatrist in charge of the closure of an asylum in Ireland, and that of Roseanne, the oldest surviving patient there – are beautifully and effortlessly portrayed in this fictional story. As their conversations together develop, the notions of truth, and archived history, are brought vividly into question, as is the role of society in determining an individual’s life.
This novel was the Winner of the Costa Book Awards 2008.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. Written as a gripping thriller, this novel subtly reveals the life story of Esme Lennox , a child from a well-to-do family in the 1920s, and tells how and why she was forced to endure a lifetime in a psychiatric institution. The close relationship between Esme, as a child and teenager, and her older sister Kitty, first in their colonial home in India, and later in 1930s Edinburgh, is touchingly portrayed – in stark contrast to the estrangement, and indeed total isolation, suffered by Esme in later life. The feisty, outspoken, young Esme is worlds apart from the restrained, naïve yet somehow dignified, elderly institutionalised woman. The elderly Kitty’s decline into dementia further questions the true nature of what ‘madness’ really is.
This brilliant, thought-provoking novel throws light on the issue of young lives stolen by the relatively recent psychiatric care system, which still affects individuals in the 21st century.