This book is to the subtleties of mental illness what a tyre is to a small frog vacationing on a highway -- if that tyre was willing to roll back and forth a few times over the same patch of road, patiently reducing all things froggy to all things not.
But let's not distance ourselves too much from the source text with analogies. Instead, say the word depression again and again. Here: depression depression depression depression depression depression depression depression depression depression ice cream. Do you see what happened there? A delicious frozen treat appeared after the word ceased to make any more sense. Do you know why? Because if something repeats itself enough you cease to give a shit about it and start thinking about dessert instead. This is how life is.
I get that depression is a awful, all-consuming thing. However for the purposes of a rounded literary experience I think it's safe to assume three solid opening chapters of inner monologue about it is probably enough scene-setting. A puzzling authorial choice had the book going exactly the opposite way, though to be fair I think the writer did recognise the escalation of commitment was getting out of hand at some point. Actually I know they did because that's when the adjectives started wandering in.
The book ends up being a series of soliloquies about how sad Ash is while also simultaneously trying to set up a pretty conventional romance. You'd think with that sort of nonsense in play something would have to give and you'd be right. The other puzzling authorial decision comes in here: to try and throw Ash into relief using his lower-class bit of totty.
It sort of makes sense, if you run the play in your head: high-strung, overanalytical, exquisitely well-educated Ash needs someone to balance it all out. That in of itself isn't an entirely unattractive idea. JL Merrow did it very well in Muscling Through -- the characters had a very different set of problems, but the tensions were the same. Sadly where Merrow was careful and circumspect with her story, Hall is heavy-handed and boxes everyone here in until there's no way out for them.
Darian is a sweetheart, but his character is so generic and superficially sketched, he just ends up being a foil for Ash. He's kind, genial, warm, and utterly unsatisfying. We're not treated to a single bit of his POV and he disappears and reappears at the plot's convenience, without any thought to how that develops him as a character. And while we're talking about shallow build-ups: Darian is a reasonable plot device, Darian and his friends
are a repulsive class statement. Will the dictionless plebs accept Ash with their canny working class ability to see through to the inner heart of a man? Can he rely on the inner integrity of the poor?
I have this idea the author's trying to get as much of Stephen Fry into Ash as he can, with the same sort of charming baggage the wealthier type of depressive brings to the table, but it just doesn't work. At his very worst Fry is still not this disingenuous, and all this wide-eyed subtext about love transcending class, social demographics AND mental illness would probably make his eyes water (Oh to be odd!
says Ogden Nash and, all the necessary disclaimers about depression and its seriousness notwithstanding, that's pretty much this book in a nutshell).
The only character in the book I didn't want to brain was Niall, and that was because the author wrote him without any artifice and all the integrity in the book was poured into him as far as I was concerned. I don't care that he was an arsehole; he was real and without any pretension, and by god the book could have done with a bit more of that. He gets the book its extra star.
The book has had such a huge publicity push you'd think an editor would have stepped in every now and again to excise all the babble out of it because the damnation of the thing is that it's good in parts: funny, wry, slyly self-deprecating. But none of that balances out the other stuff. It's a shame. I would have liked to like it.
Oh, and a large caramel sundae with softly whipped cream and pistachio brittle, in case you were interested.