Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 7, 2021

The Morbids, by Ewa Ramsey

The Morbids begins in a very striking way:

There was glitter in my hair.  When I moved it sparkled, fell, onto my hand, my lap.  Stung.

There was glitter and silence—so loud it hurt my ears.  And I smell I knew but couldn’t place.  Hot. Rusty. Sour.

‘Hey,’ I said.  ‘Are you okay?’

Nobody answered.

I looked down.  My neck hurt and at the corner of my eye, I saw my hair.  Pink, like fairy floss, full of glitter.

‘Hey,’ I said again, louder.  Still nobody answered.

There was just silence.  And glitter.

So much glitter.

So bloody quiet. 

So, right from the start the reader knows that something traumatic has happened to Caitlin, and that is why she attends a weekly support group with people suffering profound, disabling anxiety about the fear of imminent death.  They are nicknamed ‘The Morbids’ because what they talk about each week is all the multiple ways in which they might die.  So subtly you might miss it, author Ewa Ramsey lets the reader know that at first this group had proper professional help, but that help has been downgraded from psychiatrist, to psychologist, to counsellor, to a passing parade of nurses who never do anything other than take notes.  It’s one of the participants who leads the group.

(This is what happens when there are budget cuts to a state’s health system.  All these people needing help and not getting it.  Victoria, I am pleased to say, has just held a Royal Commission into mental health services and big changes are afoot.  If the other states have any sense, they’ll pick up and run with the recommendations that are made, without the expense of holding their own Royal Commissions.)

Some might characterise The Morbids as a novel on the theme of being your own worst enemy. Caitlin’s life has been derailed and she self-sabotages anything that might help her.  But Caitlin is beyond having the agency to make such decisions, about this or anything else.  In careful dialogue that seems so authentic that it might have emerged from fly-on-the-wall observations, Ramsey shows Caitlin building a protective wall around herself.  She is smart, she is funny, she is droll about the circumstances of her life but she is powerless to change it.  She tells no one what her problem is, not even in the support group.  She does not hear most of what is said to her.  She fends off friendship and concern.  She absents herself from family occasions, and she uses the routines of her work as a waitress to steady herself and keep her anxiety at bay.

By coincidence, I’m slowly reading an anthology called Trauma, Essays on Art and Mental Health edited by Thom Cuell, and (via Zoom) I’ve been talking about the book with my Canadian friend Joe Schreiber from Rough Ghosts who’s one of the contributors.  We’ve talked about the essay called ‘We Awful, Awful’ by Ian Boulton, which is a vivid depiction of the ways in which people with high levels of anxiety develop coping strategies so that they can manage daily life.  Mindfulness is not some soothing serenity package in a luxury destination, it’s concentrating furiously on the minutiae of routine tasks so that there is no room in the brain for terrors that can overwhelm the mind.  Caitlin is really, really good at her job because she manages the paperwork and the restocking assiduously.  In the absence of any effective professional help, she is using the same strategies as those described in Boulton’s essay.  And she’s drinking a lot. And not sleeping.

I never wanted [work] to stop, because every time it slowed my head started pounding and my vision blurred and the Thoughts came back, so many of them, and I had to grab something to keep from falling over.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it, thinking about what would happen if I didn’t sleep properly again.  About walking in front of a bus or falling off a train platform or leaving the gas on or tripping through a plate-glass window, nicking an artery. About slipping in the shower or drowning in the bath or tumbling down the stairs.

About how long my body would keep going before it just stopped. (p.86)

Such is the power of characterisation in this novel, that before long the reader becomes deeply invested in Caitlin’s story.  Her best friend Lina is getting married, (in Bali of all places) and even though Caitlin is too scared to get in a car much less fly around the world in search of adventure as they once dreamed of doing, this decision places Lina in the ‘normal’ world of marriage, home and eventually family.  The invitation paralyses Caitlin because Lina, who loves her dearly, wants her best friend there beside her as maid of honour.  In Bali.  Caitlin cannot even makes herself ring her friend to discuss it.

And when she meets Tom, she is too terrified to risk a relationship with him because she has to be so careful.

What I liked about this book is that Caitlin is a person with a mental health illness, but it does not define her.  The people around her, (with the exception of Dex who is a sleaze) see the person within, and they like her.  They care about her, and they respect her autonomy even though they don’t understand it.

The Morbids is a brave and perceptive debut and I look forward to reading more of this author’s work.

Author: Ewa Ramsey
Title: The Morbids
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
Cover design by Laura Thomas
ISBN: 9781760877538, pbk., 359 pages
Source: personal copy, purchased from Fishpond.

 


Responses

  1. I might like this so I’ll keep an eye open for it, thanks

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  2. My copy has not arrived and looking forward to reading this book. It’s so important that we all develop a better understanding of mental health. Fiction is a powerful genre to engage with this serious matter that affects more of us than we like to admit. I see people every day in my town who are in desperate circumstances and the services are just not available.

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    • It hasn’t come yet?
      I’ve just checked at Fishpond, and (ordered 24th Feb) it was dispatched on March 3rd. It says to expect delivery “between 10th March and 15th March. Please allow up to 5 working days before contacting us should your order fail to arrive.”

      Maybe it’s taking longer because you’re in WA? I hope it comes soon!

      Like

  3. Thanks Lisa for that. Ah distance in this great south land.

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  4. I don’t know what’s going on with the mail. Trucks leave Melbourne Tues and Fri as far as I can see and would normally be in Perth two and a half days later. And yet postage takes weeks. They must just leave it sitting in the sorting centres.
    Lots of people in my extended family on various levels of the anxiety spectrum. There’s better (free) help available than a passing parade taking notes, but still, this sounds as though it is written out of bitter experience.

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    • You mean *incredulous gasp* the mail goes by truck and not by plane??

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      • What planes? And I wouldn’t be surprised if parcel post went by rail, not that it’s any slower.

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        • No planes? Well, they’d better get that sorted before Nathan Hobby’s launch!

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  5. I don’t often read books around mental health issues as I have struggled with anxiety and depression in the past. It’s all ok at the moment but it is so important to get the help you need at the time and learn the strategies that can support you when it hits. It makes such a difference. This book sounds like a good read. People are so quick to judge and usually not in a very positive way.

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    • I don’t usually read them either though not because I have any personal experience of mental illness. It’s more that they are mostly memoirs and I would rather read a novel which has greater freedom to portray the situation in a positive way.

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  6. […] Some stand out more than others: I mentioned ‘We Awful, Awful’ by Ian Boutlon in my review of The Morbids because it had such an impact on me.  It made me admire the self-mastery of people who suffer this […]

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  7. Love your comment about other states following Victoria’s Royal Commission recommendations – those relevant and not currently in place in their jurisdictions – rather than paying for their own RCs.

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    • Well, what we see with the Aged Care Royal Commission is that all it takes to get its recommendations off the front page is some other kind of agenda, and then… nothing happens. Nothing happens while we wait for the Royal Commission to do its job, and then nothing happens because some other issue displaces it.
      So I think that we could usefully curtail this growth industry of Royal Commissions and start taking advantage of the research and the reports that are already done.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Totally agree … these RCs have become an out it seems. You look like you are doing something, and then hope everyone forgets.

        Liked by 1 person


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