Friday, February 1, 2013

Code White by Debra Anderson

When I was about seventeen, a lot of my friends were in the psych ward. I'm not sure if that is a reflection on me - did I drive people crazy? More likely I attracted a certain kind of friend; sensitive, creative, extremely smart types who didn't fit neatly into boxes in one way or another. Anyway, I can think of at least four friends of mine who spent time in the psych ward while I was in high school, and we used to go and visit them. Let me tell you something: it's not a super fun place.

I remember at first being a bit jealous because there was a pool table and a popsicle vending machine. But after spending some time there you could tell that it would be better to not be there at all. So it was with some familiarity that I read 'Code White', which takes place almost entirely on the psych ward of a hospital.

The story is told from Alex's point of view. She wakes up in the hospital with no memory of how she came to be there, and then proceeds to journal her days, weeks, and months on the ward. Alex has bipolar disorder, but most of the narration happens when she is depressed, with only vague references made to her manic periods. I found this to be an interesting choice on the author's part, and it imbued Alex's story with a vaguely unreliable slant.

Alex is gay, and the book is almost as much about lesbian culture as it is about life on the psych ward - and they are, in a way, mirrored in each other: the close-up lives, the everyone-knows-everything-about-you feelings, the performances of gender/sanity. It's very cleverly written and realistic. The writer (whose first novel this is, although she has written plays) is clearly extremely gifted and writes honestly.

Here's the thing though: nothing happens. It's kind of what you would expect from journalling the daily life of a hospital ward: not much goes on, just the same shit every day. I think the book is as interesting as it could be given the premise - after all, the characters are well-drawn, and the pacing is not bad - but it's so limited by the lack of action. Based on my experiences just visiting folks in this situation, it's certainly realistic, but that isn't always a good thing.

I didn't find this to be a great Toronto book, as not much Toronto scenery is included, for obvious reasons. But I am interested in Anderson as an emerging Toronto novelist, and while I wouldn't recommend this book, I am excited to read other stuff by her.

Two CN Towers out of five.

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