Review - Books - Highs and lows with a real twist

3rd September 2010 at 01:00

On Balance

By Chris Danes

Publisher: St Mark's Press

ISBN: 978-1847475930


Never trust the teller; trust the tale," advised D.H. Lawrence, but he had clearly not run into a book quite like On Balance, where the teller and the tale are so intertwined as to make the distinction almost meaningless.

Ex-teacher Chris Danes's impressive debut novel draws heavily and in detail on his bipolarity: his personal history and circumstances provide the underlying motive for writing the book - which is to raise awareness of a form of mental illness that he claims is much misunderstood. A valid question, then, is whether On Balance as a self-contained work of crime fiction is able to take the weight of its proselytising intentions.

Laura Morton, like her creator, is bipolar. Also like her creator, she is a Catholic secondary school deputy head whose condition has forced her to give up her position and career, at least temporarily. In Laura's case - and I am assuming that at this point fiction takes over from reality - this follows an interview with a young man named Drew whose extreme behaviour leads her to suspect he is the victim of abuse. But instead of following procedure, she asks the boy outright if his father is abusing him - with predictable repercussions.

Danes's depiction of Laura's life when the book opens is vivid and alarming. Hanging out in the pub, her professional and personal life in ruins, she oscillates between intense highs and lows with, invariably, similar consequences - humiliation, loss of confidence and confusion. These scenes are hard to read without cringing. Laura's behaviour is over the top in every direction, whether gushing about the affectionate warmth of pub life or raging minutes later at the oafishness of a man who tries to pick her up, hurling beer in his face. There is no balance and no stability. If this is difficult to read, it must be hell to live with.

Bipolarity is also known as manic depression, and after reading On Balance I now realise that it was the depression part of that description that I had always noted far more than the manic. But Laura in manic mode is, if anything, even more alarming than when she is depressed.

Later on in the book, when the murder of a school governor has taken place and Drew has been arrested, she becomes convinced that she has a divine mission to tell the police all she knows about Drew and the other boys from the school.

In interview, Danes once commented that "My mother used to say, 'Depression is hell for you and mania is hell for everybody around you'."

Laura's behaviour certainly confirms that view. Working at intense speed, euphoric, hallucinating and with a grandiose vision of her destiny, she is quite terrifying to observe.

As a study of bipolarity, On Balance seems to me excellent, and as crime fiction it is a perfectly good read. This is not a "whodunnit" in any conventional sense, as the murderer is known from the outset. It is, however, a "why-did-he-do-it", and the sordid tale that unravels as the book goes on is involving, if somewhat predictable.

Only very occasionally does Danes's surefootedness slip, most notably for me in the characters of Drew's arresting officers, who are right-wing caricatures with their talk of scum and low-lifes, arselickers, lesbians and blackies. When Laura is arrested by one of them later in the book, she is "rescued" from custody by her new boyfriend in a scene that is overplayed to such an extent that it becomes barely credible.

I also have some reservations about the final pages of the book, which take place many years after the main events.

Perhaps these are carping reservations. On Balance is a thoroughly good and, dare I say it, enjoyable read. It has pace and urgency, and Laura, upon whom the book certainly depends, is an engaging character. I felt at the end of it that I both knew a lot more about bipolar disorder and was much more sympathetic to the condition and its manifestations.

In an article in The TES last year, Chris Danes commented that he had received little support from colleagues in school and believed his illness had been in part triggered "by a combination of pressure of work and being repeatedly turned down for promotion". Wider reading of On Balance could not fail to help redress this prevailing ignorance and, in the most pleasurable of ways, offer insight into a little-understood condition.

The verdict: 810.

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