BOOK REVIEW – CLARE ALLAN’S POPPY SHAKESPEARE


2006 Bloomsbury Press.


Any satire on the mental health is going to face inevitable comparisons to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Allan’s debut novel, influenced by her own experiences as a mental health patient, compares well given it’s parallels to the British Care In The Community policies of the late 1990’s which threw many mental patients off the wards and reduced their treatments. The book makes many references to a near Orwellian Ministry Of Madness.


The main focus is on two women, - the narrator, mainly known only as N, and the eponymous Poppy Shakespeare. N is happy to be a day care patient in the Dorothy Fish day care init, in the dreadful Abbadon Centre. This is a London tower block building of some seven stories. The higher floors are reserved for patients with severe conditions, or who are deemed extremely mad. The lower floors are for the patients given a greater degree of autonomy,


The patients on the lower floors have become accustomed to being there daily and receiving their medications, which many palm and use as a currency of exchange. There is a genuine camaraderie between the patients, and they dread their annual assessments by the doctors, which can decide whether they stay put on the ward unit they like, or get sent upstairs to the less pleasant ones. Worse, they could be released if they are considered cured. The result of this is that the mad play at being madder or saner than they think they actually are in order to manipulate their assessments. N is something of an expert at this.


There are twenty five main patients described, known collectively as the Dribblers, by N, who refers to other less communicative patients as The Flops. The 25 are seemingly picked from a vast waiting list of potential patients alphabetically. Only the letter X is not represented.


When the much-respected Pollyanna is released only to soon commit suicide, the Dribblers are deeply shocked and become paranoid about whether they will share her fate if they are separated from the comforts of the care centre.


Poppy Shakespeare, a doting mother who is convinced that she is totally sane and has no need to be in the Dorothy Fish at all, soon replaces Pollyanna.  N is given the assignment of showing her how the system works. She becomes increasingly anarchic in her efforts to help Poppy prove her sanity.  Poppy seems to have been picked out as mad from a job assessment psychology test she took on applying for am employment vacancy.  Her efforts to find a solicitor to take on her case are frustrated by a frightful level of red tape.  To qualify for a solicitor on her low income (having lost her job) she has to accept the government Mad Money on offer, but to receive that, she would first have to admit to being insane which in itself would totally undermine her efforts to prove her innocence. (All very Catch-22).


As her stay goes on through the months, Poppy’s stress levels push her into genuine madness. Conversely, N, in trying to help her out, though largely making things worse, becomes more and more rational and mentally coherent, and cunning.  The finale in which N is released, and Poppy, attempting unsuccessfully to commit suicide, gets taken away to the upper wards, is very sad.


This is a beautiful, irreverent, often very funny book, with a great cast of side, and background characters, such as the patient who eats nothing but peas, and a woman with a compulsion to make tables for everyone. N herself is perhaps the finest character, given to gross exaggeration in detail, and casually refers to her shoplifting exploits.


The patients discover, or guess that Poppy may have genuinely been mentally unstable all along, making the centre’s exploitation of her as a sane measuring stick to assess Te patients against a cruel and tragically flawed policy.


You can see the increasing cancer of Privatization policy and New Labour Conservativism creeping into the story as it unfolds. The doctors are initially helpful, and as eccentric as the patients. N describes one doctor as talking while struggling to retrieve his hands from the tight pockets of his drainpipe pants – Another doctor constantly wears a balaclava indoors. No one recognizes him initially when he removes it. But the staffs become more aloof and insensitive as the Ministry demands that annual assessments become six monthly, then monthly and before long, weekly.  The balaclavas and informal denim jeans of the doctors are soon replaced by suits – the room patients could visit with any issues at any time soon becomes a board room for people in business suits – it’s rather like the way the pigs become more human in Orwell’s Animal Farm. They also have a fanatical zeal for giving propaganda statements on the good fortunes of their centre, thanking their patients when the centre receives an award for excellence, just before it destroys Poppy’s mind irretrievably. 


The London suburb around the Dorothy Fish is also well described – it seems to consist of patients who just haven’t been taken in by the system yet Poppy sees the patients around herself as having no problems, though by now she herself is cracking up. She sees anxiety and stress as natural reactions to the sadness of life. As the book shows, she may have a point.


Link – Interview with the author


Arthur Chappell