Review – 2 stars
Whilst researching the portrayal of mental health in fiction I stumbled across the synopsis for “Other People” and it got me excited. Could this be a book that actually tries to tackle mental health without the sensationalisation often found in fiction?
Not everyone with mental health issues are closet serial killers or feel the overwhelming need to kill, maim and exact revenge on people around them. It is true that these kind of dramatic scenes make for good reading, but if you have never experienced these problems it can leave you with a skewed sense of what life is really like.
The four main characters, Ginny, Jim, Nina and Vance take us on a journey of how Ginny copes with her Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder diagnosis. Exploring the complexity of a person living with this disorder O’Callan begins with a short prologue about someone cutting themselves – a classic symptom of BPD. Later you realise that it is Ginny as she observes the arrival of her new neighbours Jim and Nina.
Ginny, a shy and lonely waitress, attempts to commit suicide but fails due to a chance intervention from Jim. After her suicide attempt she is diagnosed with BPD and enters into therapy. Her doctor happens to be an old friend of Jim’s which is an important subplot within the book. As a way to better fit in with “Other People” she decides that observing Jim and Nina, who Ginny considers to be “the queen bee of the other people“. However, not all is as it seems are Jim and Nina really that perfect and how is their relationship? Nina is a very determined, goal orientated and cold individual and at times is extremely derogatory towards Ginny and her situation. I think a lot of people with a mental health issue can easily relate to – unfortunately the stigma attached to a diagnosis of BPD is wide spread, even among health care professionals. As Nina spends more time away studying for her Law degree, Jim finds himself spending more time with Ginny and is drawn to her personality – “She was kind, graceful, unselfish, beautiful, mysterious, and her down-to-earth nature was accentuated by a wonderful sense of humour. It did not take long for Jim to realise, even though he tried to fight it, he was falling in love with her.”
The inclusion of Ginny’s attempted suicide for me was very relatable to my own experiences (I was diagnosed with BPD myself after attempting suicide). Suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide is one of the diagnostic criteria for BPD sufferers and therefore important to cover in a book as the protagonist has BPD. Real world statistics from the US show that approximately 80% of sufferers will exhibit suicidal intentions and around 70% will attempt suicide at least once. However, I do feel that the circumstances leading up to Ginny’s decisions could have been developed further.
I understand that everyone is an individual and no two BPD sufferers are the same, I do feel that some fundamental issues were glossed over. Reading the book I get the sense that O’Callan has done a lot of research into BPD and makes an attempt to explore the inner workings of a borderline mind, but I do feel some things were played down.
Two scenes in particular stood out for me. The first scene is Ginny’s reaction to seeing her only friend, Vance, sitting with Jim outside the apartment drinking beer – an activity that previously had been reserved for Vance and Ginny. This situation may seem trivial, but for a borderline a situation like this could trigger an emotional meltdown. I can agree that my moods can fluctuate from sadness and tears, to happiness and giggles, in a matter of minutes. I would perceive the situation as Vance trying to replace Ginny’s friendship with Jim. Ginny’s behaviour as she runs past them and into the apartment complex is realistic, however, I found the next part of her behaviour jarring. If I was in this situation I would be devastated, Vance her only friend has chosen Jim’s company over her, therefore, abandoning her. This sense of abandonment would have brought up a storm of conflicting emotions, potentially escalating to self harm but in this case after a few seconds Ginny kisses an angel and everything is better. If only it was that easy!
The second situation is Ginny’s apparent nonchalance about the fact the Jim has chosen Nina over her and she finds herself alone and pregnant. I think for most people this might kick up a little bit of emotion, but I felt this was underdeveloped. Even though Ginny tries to commit suicide again after this she just seems to shrug off the situation. I don’t think I would be so calm, my anger is generally directed inwards but I think there would definitely be some fantasies of revenge!
The relationship between Jim and Ginny’s psychiatrist and the way he divulges information about Ginny’s mental health without her permission is a scene that I found to be particularly problematic. A breach in doctor patient confidentiality this substantial makes me feel uncomfortable even if this book is set in the 90’s. I had a major problem with this plot point and found my heart rate rapidly increasing at the thought someone could betray her so easily.
I found the plot in this story to be slow paced and the writing generally difficult to read. I feel a lot more could have been done at exploring the borderline mind. I feel the emphasis on Jim’s point of view in the first two chapters could have been removed completely. Focusing more on Ginny and her story, would have made the book more interesting and still resulted in a very similar plot. I also felt that the character development was weak and Ginny’s backstory was briefly mentioned in chapter seven. I did not feel that invested in the characters even if I did partially empathise with Ginny.