Halfway House by Katharine Noel

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Halfway House by Katharine Noel

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: The Voorsters' perfect life starts to disintegrate when their teenage daughter has a psychotic breakdown. Over the years that follow Angie tries to hold herself together, while the family falls apart.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Piatkus Books
ISBN: 978-0749937737

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The Voorsters are the perfect family.

Pieter, evacuated as a child from Holland just as the starvation of the later years of the war really started to bite, is a professional cellist. Not famous, but successful enough.

Wife Jordana, beautiful, years younger (having fallen in love with him when she was just 14), eccentric in her choice of clothing but stylish enough to get away with it, supportive, working in a women's therapy clinic, ethical, professional, committed.

Son Luke, typical teenager, good looking, reasonably smart, attractive to the kind of girls who fall deeply enough in love to stand under the tree and watch the windows night after night, selfish enough to ignore them, normal enough to sneak out after hours to go see his real girlfriend. He swims well and competitively... but cannot match his sister.

Angie. Angie is a straight-A student, preparing for college and winning all the medals going in the pool, specialising the most difficult of all strokes: the butterfly.

They live in small town New Hampshire... as safe and predictable and society-conscious a place as America can provide.

Then one particular swim meet Angie seems on edge... her father finds her having been up most of the night, manically working on a school project, enthusing in fractured links about how to save the planet. At the pool, she false-starts... but pulls it together to win her race convincingly... then, just as Luke's race is about to start, she races poolside, dives in, swims down... .and stays there.

How and when Angie's psychotic breakdown started isn't clear... but this the point when it becomes unavoidable to all those around her.

Halfway House is the story of what happens next. We follow Angie through years of treatment and recovery and relapse. We watch her parents and her brother struggling and often failing to cope with the new shape their life has suddenly taken. We see how the effects ripple out from Angie to all of those she comes into contact with, and those at the next remove... and onwards.

It is a poignant, moving, and occasionally humourous account of a struggle to appear normal while your world is falling apart. Angie herself is intelligent enough to understand her illness, though seldom strong enough to control its effects. Everyone else is uncertain how to react. What strikes the reader strongly is the feeling of 'embarrassment' that still arises when dealing with mental illness. Although accepting of her mental state, Angie does not necessarily want everyone around her to know about it. Luke tends to tell everyone up-front, a pre-emptive defence for any strange behaviour she might display. Her parents remain protective, but ultimately despairing: though never expressed, there is a sense of failure, of where did we go wrong that pervades their responses... trying to control her behaviour within societal norms, withdrawal from the previously social existences, their own relationship collapsing in the process.

Through Angie we see a desperation to be helped, and an unwillingness to allow the degree of control to others that might enable that help to be effective. Descriptions of the medication cover all of the side effects of weight-gain, lethargy, heaviness, even increased despair... effects which further undermine the esteem of the patient and make one question whether they can ever be truly effective. This is contrasted with Angie's attempts to manage on her own. The whole complicated mess that a mind can become is laid bare.

Where Halfway House really hits home however - apart from the perfect depiction of Angie herself - is that she is not the only character whose mind we get to analyse. Beyond the fracturing of the family and the self-analysis that inevitably results in those closest to her, we are given others as markers, or 'controls' as it were. There is Kristin with her teenage adoration of Luke, the intensity of which only later becomes shockingly evident; Evan Johannsen a college-roommate of Angie's boyfriend with some really weird habits but a soul more gentle than might be expected to correlate; Wendy (Luke's girlfriend) with her own fixations and inhibitions and rituals and jealousies. Friends and acquaintances: careless and cruel, carefree and kind. Outwardly ordinary people, with the kind of thoughts many of us might have. Where is the line, Noel appears to ask sotto voce, and what stops any of these people crossing it? Or how far across do you need to be, before anyone will notice?

The condemnation of "the system" is just the background. The struggles to fund treatment, the idiocies of what medical insurance will and will not fund, how much say a mental patient has in the their own treatment, how much or how little they are permitted informed consent. Noel underplays them subtly enough to make sure you do not let them pass by unmarked.

The middleground is taken with an examination of familial love: how inflexible it can be, how badly it expresses itself and how, ultimately, it can be so much stronger than the unit that it is supposed to support.

Emotionally intense, Halfway House succeeds in being ultimately an uplifting book, and one that might just get those who don't know, one step closer to understanding what it is like 'in there'.

My thanks to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If this book interests you then you might also like A Secret Madness by Elaine Bass.

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Buy Halfway House by Katharine Noel at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Halfway House by Katharine Noel at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Halfway House by Katharine Noel at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Halfway House by Katharine Noel at Amazon.com.


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