*CONTENT WARNING: MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES, INCLUDING SUICIDE*
Many of us will probably describe ourselves as progressive, modern, even woke, but we all have our taboos, and schizophrenia and mental health are most certainly some of them.
If you have indeed at any point thought that mental health issues are not a serious matter or have turned your head away when faced with this topic, then you have your chance to redeem yourself and peek through the curtain of the taboo that envelopes schizophrenia thanks to this novel.
The Octopus Man by Jasper Gibson was published on 21st January 2021 by W&N. Inspired by the life of Jasper Gibson’s cousin, Ed Metcalfe, who died in 2011 after suffering with schizophrenia for 20 years, the book follows our main character Thomas Tuplow’s life with schizophrenia.
Tom has been living with schizophrenia for nineteen years; he is not self-sufficient and relies heavily on his sister Tess’ help. Tom does not believe he has schizophrenia. He is adamant that the voice in his head belongs to Malamock, the Octopus God, who guides him on a spiritual path towards a mission. Tom cannot eat meat, cannot drink alcohol and has to give up any sexual impulse. He leads a chaste existence, under a regime of medications and Malamock’s threats of electrocution.
Tom has experienced a turbulent youth, abusing alcohol and all sorts of drugs, and his diagnosis indicates that these elements have affected Tom’s psyche to the point where Tom created a voice in his head to save himself from this destructive path.
The prospective trial for a new medication, the fictional Bildinocycline, is a major trigger for Tom and his relationship with Malamock, and that is what will lead us to a series of events which will change Tom’s life.
Gibson does not spare us any details, we dive deep into Tom’s mind and his perception of the world, we look at it through his eyes, both under the Octopus God’s and the new medication’s influence. We struggle and feel uncomfortable when faced with the brutality of mental health issues on patients and their families. We learn how inadequate the health system is in supporting them (not really a surprise). We suffer from the inability Tom feels to do anything, even the most basic activities such as reading a book or babysit his nephew for one evening.
We meet a number of characters gravitating around Tom, each one of them a suffering soul in their very own particular way. Tess has been taking care of Tom all this time on top of balancing her career and her personal life as a single mother of two children and a complicated relationship with Byron, who has a conflicted relationship with Tom himself. There is Missy, a teenage girl Tom meets in Hilldean, the hospital where he ends up after he triggers in Uxbridge, who has spent years in hospitals since she does not have a family outside to go back to. She will be part of Tom’s recovery later on in the story and will play a major role in the unfolding of the final events. Rashid, the abusive nurse at Hilldean, who attempts to frame Tom accusing him of sleeping with Roseanna, another patient in the hospital, when we actually know it is Rashid who is having an illicit and unprofessional affair with her. And a number of other patients at Hilldean and people in the outside world who interact with Tom and leave, unknowingly, a mark on his life and his relationship with Malamock.
This book unveils the problematic approach to a very sensitive topic such as schizophrenia, both in literature and society. We cannot know the full extent of mental struggles or even begin to fathom what they feel like just by reading this book, but it definitely provides a good introduction to the much wider topic of mental health and the precarious lives people affected by mental conditions live.
Living the story through Tom’s eyes and mind, we grow close to him and we care about his life and worry about his struggles. The ending is left relatively open for the reader to imagine and fill the gaps in, but it is certainly a positive one. I was quite pleased to see Tom recovering in the first place during the Bildinocycline trial, so when he seems to be back on his feet pursuing his legal career, with or without Malamock, it is inevitable to root for him.
However, the novel brings the reader to pretty dark corners of the human mind, and finding a happy ending in the last few pages seems a bit out place. I did not see it coming and however pleased to see a positive unfolding of the events, the whole story seems to lose authenticity towards the end.
Overall I find The Octopus Man a fundamental reading in a more inclusive perspective on literature, a good example of how to talk about topics that are still a taboo in our society in an intelligent and knowledgeable way. I highly recommend it to all those who are ready to confront themselves with how little we know about our mind and its intricate logic.
The Octopus Man is published by W&N, available now: https://www.weidenfeldandnicolson.co.uk/titles/jasper-gibson/the-octopus-man/9781474616102/?v2=true.
About the Author
Chiara (she/her) was born in Italy in 1994, then fell in love with the UK and moved to London. She’s a reader, writer, translator and traveller. While working in finance, Chiara dreams of a career in journalism and publishing – work in progress.