Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 25, 2013

The Novel Cure (2013), by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

The Novel CureYesterday at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, I went to a session called Healing Words, which featured three writers discussing the power of words to help people deal with ill-health or emotional issues.  It was a serious discussion, rather sombre in tone though Peter Goldsworthy did his best to lighten the mood.  It wasn’t the sort of session where the audience dashes out afterwards to buy a book: I suspect that there was more than one would-be author writer from the audience who in question time told us that she wanted to write a book about her journey with mental illness…

By coincidence I have been reading The Novel Cure, an A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin.  This delightful book takes a much more light-hearted approach to bibliotherapy, (which is appropriate, since neither of them are qualified psychologists*).  The book lists a splendid catalogue of ailments for which reading a book or two is the cure – of course I loved it!

Their mockumentary style can be discerned from one of the early footnotes, where they list the fourteen causes of anxiety:

10) Trauma, including abuse, and death of a loved one; 2) Relationship problems, either at home or at work; 3) Work/school; 4) Finances; 5) Natural disaster; 6) Lack of oxygen at high altitude; 7) Taking life too seriously; 8) Gnawing feeling that you should have read more of the classics; 9) Negative self-talk; 10) Poor health/hypochondria; 11) Taking too many drugs; 12) Being late/too busy; 13) Inadequate food, water, heat or comfort; 14) Threat of attack by wild animal/person.

Well, if you too suffer from No. 8, there is a literary cure for you and the bonus is that Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady ‘can be expected to ameliorate’ ten of these causes although they sagely advise that in the case of No. 14 ‘a novel of any sort is unhelpful, except perhaps to use as a weapon’.

There are of course more prosaic ailments, such as ‘appetite, loss of’; ‘coffee, can’t find a decent cup of, and ‘idiot, feeling like an’ as well as cures for personality defects such as ‘arrogance‘  (for which they recommend Pride and Prejudice, of course) and ‘jealousy‘, for which they suggest a less clichéd example, Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch.  This willingness to range far and wide across the literary globe is one of the most refreshing aspects of this book: the authors are very widely read and especially pleasing is that there are numerous Aussie books included.

While I hope that none of my readers are suffering from ‘dictator, being a’, I’m sure that even those with only mild symptoms (see ‘control freak, being a’) will enjoy Ismail Kadare’s The Successor,  and I would certainly endorse Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visters (sic) as a cure for ‘manners, bad’ which I read as a girl (though I can’t attest to how long the effect lasts).

There are times, however, when the authors go too far: there are occasional homilies inserted amongst the pages, and I take strong exception to the very idea that there is such a condition as ‘reverence of books, excessive’.  Also, I suffer myself from ‘find one of your books, inability to’ but can only partially endorse their cure: ‘take inspiration from Borges and designate one room in your house the library’.  Serious cases of this ailment require two rooms or more, and in my case, the building of a ‘branch library’ upstairs, (a renovation project yet to take place, but I am sure The Spouse will recognise the seriousness of my condition before too much longer.  Perhaps when he falls over a pile of books in the hall…)

Do visit Sue’s review at Whispering Gums – she enjoyed it too.

*Anyone who has a mental illness should always be under the care of  professional medicos.

Authors: Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin
Title: The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781922 079350
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Fishpond: The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies


  1. Wonderful review, Lisa. This looks like a beautiful book and a must read for book lovers. Point no.8 – “Gnawing feeling that you should have read more of the classics” – I definitely have that! It is wonderful that Henry James’ ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ ameliorates ten of those causes. I want to read that now. ‘Find one of your books, inability to’ makes me remember the time when I got a second copy of ‘Anna Karenina’ because I forgot that I had got a copy already. Your home library looks wonderful. I would love to visit it sometime :) Thanks for this lovely review.


  2. How ironic that a session on healing words had a sombre vibe. I guess it attracted those who have yet to take the journey, so the good vibe may come at the end of or during the process. :)

    Healing words reminds me of some of the closing events in Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie, there are some powerful healing moments in the novel which came as quite a surprise when they occurred from a reading point of view, like we didn’t realise the healing that was required until something provoked it.


  3. Claire, Vishy, this is a great book. I enjoyed its tongue-in-cheek style, but it’s also a great source of recommendations. You know, just in case one day I run out of ideas for what to read LOL…

    But seriously, one of the speakers (who’d had cancer) said that nothing she read helped because nothing was like her experience, and this reminded me of when I was grieving for the loss of a dear school friend. A friend suggested I read CS Lewis – but it didn’t work, it was not the same.

    I think that grief and loss is always very individual and personal. It’s an experience that we have to go through, because it’s part of life, and imagining that some book is going to relieve that pain is a delusion. If you really love someone, they are worth grieving for. What kind of cheap person would you be and what value would that precious relationship be reduced to, if you could just read a book, identify with the situation, realise you’re not the only one and move on? It doesn’t help to realise you are not the only one, or that how you feel fits a pattern etc. What helps is love and support from others who will let you grieve in the way that you need to, and the knowledge that one day the pain will ease.


  4. Point well made about serious mental illness, Lisa … As for the MFF, I can imagine Peter Goldsworthy trying to lighten the tone – he is a funny man.


    • I’ve got his new memoir to read, Sue, and I’m looking forward to that:)


      • Oh yes, I heard him interviewed about that on Books and Arts Daily and it sounded good.


  5. Sue made this sound like such fun and now here you go and make it sound even more fun! I am keeping my out for it to be published in the US!


    • It sure makes a change from the usual serious ‘literature canon’ LOL


  6. Hello there! Lovely to see all these comments, and thanks for a great review, Lisa – The Novel Cure is being published in the US on the 28th Sept.


    • Hello Ella, lovely to meet you!
      It must be synchronicity, one of my friends came for dinner last Friday, and she was a bit down in the dumps, and so I produced your book and we had a good old chuckle identifying causes and cures – and she left feeling much more cheerful.
      I hope your book rockets up the bestseller charts:)


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