Review - Voices clamouring to be listened to

1st February 2013 at 00:00

I need to take a walk. Clear my head. Really clear my head, because reading Freaks Like Us has left me feeling as though there might be strange voices in it. As though reality and imagination are melting and merging into an indistinguishable mass.

Wow, Freaks Like Us is a good book.

Written by psychologist Susan Vaught, the novel (aimed at teenagers) tells the story of 17-year-old Jason, a schoolboy with schizophrenia. He attends a special educational needs class along with Sunshine, who has selective mutism.

When Sunshine goes missing, the FBI is called in. Jason therefore decides not to take his "fuzzy pills" for the next 24 hours. He needs all the unfuzziness he can muster, in order to help find his friend.

And so the narrative is shared between Jason and the voices in his head. There is the Bastard voice: "Whatever it is, it's your fault, you loser." There is the Whiner: "It's awful. It's terrible. It's awful." And there is the chorus of no-name voices behind them: "Pain, pain, rain, rain, pain is all a game."

The longer Jason goes without his medication, the louder and more insistent these voices become. The voices think he might have hurt Sunshine, and Jason can no longer distinguish between what really happened and what he is imagining. His father turns into an evil tree; the darkness has fangs; blood is leaking from walls. And, because Jason is narrating the story, we are there with him, watching all these things happen.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as an attempt to piggyback on the success of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, with its autistic narrator. But Freaks Like Us is too good to be written off as derivative. Vaught pulls off something quite remarkable: she invites us into Jason's head but simultaneously provides us with the clarity necessary to distinguish reality from illness. This never wavers, even as she deftly heightens the sense of confusion.

In one particularly headspinning passage, we - alongside Jason - watch an FBI agent's face fall off. Then there is "quiet except for my head and the bloodrain and the thump of faces hitting floors probably no one in town has faces any more there will just be facepuddles and so much blood bloodpuddles".

I could cavil about elements of melodrama and oversimplification. But these complaints fade, like Jason's voices after a dose of fuzzy pills, when measured against the book's impressive achievements.

Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught is published by Bloomsbury, #163;6.99.

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