The comical fiasco of a funeral wake, replete with a non-sensical toast from a tipsy gate-crasher, sets the scene for this very British portrait of a family in I’m sorry you feel that way, the novel by Rebecca Wait.
Wait uses humour like lipstick barely concealing the molten foundation of the family members’ lives, each of them bearing - albeit to different degrees - the intergenerational scars left by mental illness.
At this funeral we meet the members of the family around which the story revolves: three siblings - twins Alice and Hanna in their 20s, and their older brother Michael - along with their mother Celia. Their disparate personalities are neatly summed up in Wait’s opening line:
On the whole, they enjoy a funeral. Michael, because it appeals to his sense of ceremony, Hanna because she likes the drama, and Alice because it brings people together. Their mother, because it gives her a sense of achievement.
It becomes apparent that this funeral - to send off Celia’s older sister, Kate - is a form of reunion between the four: some dramatic rift had been keeping Hanna apart from Celia, Alice and Michael for several years.
To unravel the cause of the rift, the novel jumps back in time to when Celia was a child. We then volley back and forth between past and present, told from the different characters’ perspectives, through two generations.
We soon find the longest shadow over their lives had been cast by Celia’s older sister’s schizophrenia, her paranoia and erratic behaviour dominating Celia’s early life, the likely cause of Celia’s own controlling personality and the dubious choices she makes.
The women characters in the novel are memorable but, on the whole, very unlikeable.
The eager to please, noble, unadventurous Alice, who at one point describes her own life as “too small“, and it‘s hard not to disagree - the type of person who needs a hug, but you just want to shake.
The spirited Hanna, the “wild child” who ran away from home, and cut Alice deeply when she’d instruct her to pretend they didn’t know each other, then turn around and stand up for Alice when she was bullied.
And the unsettling, undermining Celia, whose ”every act is a strained performance in front of a silent, critical audience”. Odious, and with few redeeming characteristics, Celia in particular put me on edge. You can’t help wondering about the soundness of her psychology - was she just the way she was because her parents were so concerned about her schizophrenic sister that they overlooked Celia? Or was there a deeper issue?
On the otherhand, I found the male characters - brother Michael and father Paul - less convincing and a bit contrived, but as the novel really is centred on the women, perhaps that was Wait’s intention.
With its central theme the impact of mental illness on families, this saga is reminiscent - but perhaps not quite as skilful - as Meg Mason’s best seller Sorrow and Bliss. There are moments of crushing despondency, of very British humour, and of the brutal realities of what it means to live with mental illness.