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Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan
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Poppy Shakespeare (2006)

by Clare Allan

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The Dorothy Fish is a psychiatric hospital in London. N – the narrator of the book – has been a patient there for 13 years, and like the other patients, her ambition is to never be discharged. So when a new patient named Poppy Shakespeare arrives, furious at being sent there, claiming that she doesn’t have any psychiatric problems, and determined to get out, N is confused by Poppy’s attitude. Nevertheless, the two become friends, and N tries to help Poppy prove that she does not belong in the hospital. But they soon realise that they are up against ludicrous bureacracy and a system that hinders those it is meant to help.

I had high hopes for this book – one of the quotes on the cover describes it as a cross between One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Catch 22 – praise indeed! Unfortunately, while it definitely has some qualities to recommend it, I found that it fell short of my expectations.

As a narrator, N was unreliable, and I could never be sure whether she was telling things the way they happened, or the way she imagined them. This was probably part of the point however, and I had absolutely no problem with it. Certainly some of the things she claimed to witness seemed too ridiculous to actually be real, but despite her self-centredness and her skewed take on events, she was quite an endearing character. The whole book is told through her eyes, and using her vernacular (“I’m not saying nothing, but you know what I’m saying?!”) She was also very funny at times (unintentionally on the part of the character, but surely intentionally on the part of the author).

One of the things that became apparent quite early on was how each patient (known as ‘dribblers) had a name that represented a letter of the alphabet – and it seemed only possible for anyone to admitted to the Dorothy Fish when the previous patient with that initial had left (for example, Poppy was admitted to the hospital, after Pollyanna had left). I assumed that this was the author’s way of making the point that the health services saw them only as statistics rather than as actual people. And that illustrates part of the problem of the book – it seemed to me that it didn’t know whether it wanted to tell a straight out story, or whether it wanted to be satirical view of the health services.

The ending was also unsatisfactory, at least from my point of view, and never really resolved the questions in my mind – which may have been deliberate, but was certainly irritating. Certain parts of the plot didn’t make any sense – the process that led to Poppy being sent to the hospital in the first place for instance, but as we only have N’s account of how that happened, it’s impossible to know how much of it was true.

On the plus side, as I have already mentioned, it did have a number of very funny parts, and despite the problems, was very readable. Other than the narrator herself however, it never seemed that any of the other characters were really studied, and they were mainly portrayed as broad stereotypes – again, possibly as a result of N’s view of them, but either way it didn’t work for me.

Having said all that, I probably would pick up another book by Clare Allan – she has a flair for humour and the writing flowed well. Overall, it wasn’t a raging disappointment, but it didn’t live up to the rave reviews which I had read. ( )
2 vote Ruth72 | Sep 25, 2011 |
When I started this book I thought I was in for a treat, as it received many raving reviews. N's language quickly became annoying tough (Do you know what I'm saying)
All of the characters, apart from Poppy Shakespeare, were thoroughly unlikable, I wonder what the writer means to imply here about people with mental heatlh issues.
In the end I just grew tired of the book and kept counting how many pages were still left. Admittedly Poppy's story was very interesting and this was what kept me reading, but for me it didn't make up for the rest of the book.
Whatever point the writer was trying to make about British psychiatry, to me she just comes across as very harsh on anyone suffering from mental illness.
Also the idea that patients make up symptoms so as not to be discharged comes across as ludicrious to anyone who has ever spend time inside a psychiatric hospital - as I read the author has. ( )
  Boekenbeestje | Jan 6, 2010 |
I so wanted to like this book, from the blurb on the back it sounded interesting. I just didn't get it - I didn't like the way it was written, I didn't find it particularly amusing, in fact I thought it was sad. I know it was supposed to be a parody, but I do think there is probably more than a grain of truth in the story, and that what happened to Poppy and N could actually happen to some extent within the British Mental Health system.

I struggled to keep my attention on the book whilst reading it, and found myself easily distracted, which to me is always a sign that I'm not really getting into something! ( )
  Fluffyblue | Oct 8, 2008 |
An enjoyable send up of mental health institutions, bureaucracy generally, and government. The narrator, N, is a patient or "client" of a day mental health hospital -- she spends her days there, but lives in her own apartment. The story she tells is of a new patient named Poppy Shakespeare who arrives in the hospital insisting that nothing is wrong and that she's being unfairly forced into treatment. The narrative style is somewhat stream-of-consciousness (and a "mentally ill" consciousness at that), but it manages to work reasonably well most of the time. N is a classic unreliable narrator -- it's clear from the beginning that the reader is going to need to figure out the "facts" through the lens of a somewhat twisted and self-centered narrator. Those offended by curse words should avoid this book as the f-bomb is dropped repeatedly. Overall, the author manages to do a good job of expressing the frustration with the system experienced by its patients and the stupidity of certain programs. ( )
1 vote msjoanna | Jun 5, 2008 |
You have to be able to read some badly written dialogue to get through this book. Was 'N' meant to speak like that or is it the author's awful writing style - I wasn't sure. It did make for a difficult read so be fully prepared for this.

Anyway I trudged through this book and it was a trudge because nothing was interesting. It was okay because it was good to see a patient's perspective as a service user. Having not read 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' I'm unable to comment on the comparisons. The characters are difficult to get a feel for. I did enjoy reading about the hospital and her thoughts on the doctors; likewise her description of the other patients is funny and who knows but maybe they are accurate. It was the description of the two main characters that was lacking.

I was bitterly disappointed as I'd been so looking forward to reading this. But sadly I won't be picking up anything else she writes. It could've been cut down quite a bit. The premis for the novel is fabulous and like I say, I'd been eagerly awaiting the reading of this. Sadly it wasn't one for me. ( )
  SmithSJ01 | Mar 23, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0747585849, Paperback)

Who is mad? Who is sane? Who decides? Welcome to the Dorothy Fish, a hospital in North London. N has been a patient for thirteen years. Day after day she sits smoking in the common room and swapping medication. Like the other patients, N's ambition is never to be discharged. Then in walks Poppy Shakespeare in a short skirt and snakeskin heels. Poppy is certain she isn't mentally ill and desperate to return to her life outside and, though baffled, N agrees to help her. But in a world where everything's upside down, are they crazy enough to upset the system?

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:49 -0400)

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"Welcome to the Dorothy Fish, a day hospital in North London. N has been a patient here for thirteen years. Day after day she sits smoking in the common room, swapping medication and comparing MAD money rates. Like all the patients at the Dorothy Fish, N's chief ambition is never to be discharged. Each year when her annual assessment comes round, she is relieved to learn that she hasn't got any better." "Then in walks Poppy Shakespeare in her six-inch skirt and twelve-inch heels. She is certain she isn't mentally ill and is desperate to return to her life outside. Though baffled by Poppy's attitude, N agrees to help. Together they plot to gain Poppy's freedom. But in a world where everything's upside-down, are they crazy enough to upset the system?" "Poppy Shakespeare looks at madness from the inside, questioning our mental health system and the borders we place between sanity and insanity."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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