Creativity and Friendship as Weapons of Liberation

Echoes of Narcissus in the Gardens of Delight - Jo Robinson

Donna, the protagonist of this novel, has been married for over thirty years to Marco, a horrible man who has made her believe she’s unstable and unworthy of anybody’s love or attention. Their daughter, Shelley, was packed to boarding school and has avoided the family home ever since. Donna has managed to survive thanks to a huge garden (partly the land of an old farmhouse) and her renewed interest in Horticulture. Researching heritage tomatoes she stumbles upon information that makes her believe perhaps her disastrous and unhappy marriage (at least for her. Her husband seems to get all he needs from the relationship and other relationships) is not her fault. And her husband’s behaviour might not be unique either. She discovers malignant narcissistic personality disorder.

Jo Robinson creates a unique set of characters and a beautifully nuanced novel of sensations and feelings out of a story that might sound familiar (I think many people who read the novel will perceive similarities between the couple in the book and some people they know, if not in the detail, at least in the essence). Despite that familiarity, the immediacy of the story (although it is told in the third person, we see everything that happens from Donna’s point of view, live her anxieties, panic, feel her frustrations, and finally, her hopes and achievements), the elements of surprise (Donna keeps some cards under her sleeve), the sympathetic and likeable characters (except for Marco), and the overall optimism of a book that shows the positive effects of creativity (gardening in this instance) and friendship make it highly recommended.

The pace of the book changes from slow and meditative at the beginning (when, like the character, we live inside of her head, in fear of what might happen if we dare to tread outside of Donna’s house and insular life) to fast-paced and full of adventures, danger and varied characters at the end. The novel flows well and we engage and root for the main character. The ending is satisfying and the novel is a pleasurable read.

Although this is a work of fiction, it reminded me of Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens in its love for alternative ways of finding one’s calling and life-affirming creativity.

Having read the author’s blog and now one of her novels, I can’t wait to read more of her writing. I expect more fascinating topics and engrossing stories.

As a side note, I’m a psychiatrist, and narcissistic personality disorder is one of the well-described personality disorders in several psychiatric classifications. Most psychiatrists would distinguish between mental disorders and mental illnesses. Personality disorders manifest themselves as a series of traits of an individual’s personality (as such they appear from a young age, and continue to manifest themselves, in most cases, throughout the person’s life). They are considered disorders when they have a negative impact on the life of either the person, others who relate to them or often both, and in most cases are extreme manifestations of characteristics that a lot of people might share. Among other personality disorders are: borderline personality disorder, paranoid, obsessive, depressive, anxious, antisocial…Mental illnesses are mental disorders too, although those appear at a certain point in life and like other illnesses can last for a period of time and get better (with treatment in most cases, although some mental illnesses run a chronic course and it’s more difficult to be specific as to when they are “cured”. It is usually possible to recall a time before the illness became manifest). People suffering from personality disorders might present with short-lived pseudo-psychotic symptoms (delusions or hallucinations), although in the case of Marco there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that (or at least Donna does not describe delusions or hallucinations). It is likely though that if we scored Marco using the PCL-R (Psychopathy Checklist-Revised) he would score above the cut-off point for psychopathy, although this is not a specific psychiatric diagnosis.