#YoungWriterAward: Inferno by Catherine Cho

I’ve now finished reading all of the shortlisted titles for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, but for most of the month the day job has been so demanding that I haven’t had time to review any beyond the first one I read. So you can expect a flurry of reviews coming up between now and the end of the month, as we prepare to announce the Shadow Panel winner on the 3rd of December. The judges will announce their winner on the 10th of December.

Catherine Cho’s Inferno is a memoir (it says so on the title page, as if it would be any less powerful if it were fiction). It is an account of the post-partum psychosis that the author experienced shortly after the birth of her first child, while she was visiting her family in the States together with her English husband and their baby son. The experience was so severe, her mental state so profoundly altered, that she ended up being hospitalised in an involuntary psych ward.

The book moves between scenes from the ward, references to the author’s Korean family traditions and stories, a doomed previous relationship, and the story of how she fell in love with her husband, their marriage and their road trip across the States. At first I found these switches of perspective unnerving, even irritating, but then I realised that Cho is trying to make sense of something that struck her so suddenly and seemingly made no sense at all.

Her psychotic brain was seeing patterns where there were none, but now she wants to recollect those moments at a distance, calmly, and see if there was any rhyme or reason to it.

There are certainly elements of Girl, Interrupted or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the ward scenes, but it’s the passages of lyrical, almost manic poetic intensity that try to replicate the ‘brain on fire’ phenomenon of psychosis which I found particularly moving. I have seldom seen the dangerous temptation of allowing oneself to sink into the abyss described so well (although Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and Leonora Carrington’s Down Below do come to mind).

It was strangely exhilarating to see these patterns, like putting together a story when there were only pieces before. And through my dread and my fear, I saw the beauty in them, the patterns in the universe. I could tell it was dangerous, this raw energy, this coursing feeling, and for a moment, I wished I could tumble in, tumble into the madness. I felt like I’d caught a glimpse of another dimension, of the void, of the truth, of possibility. This feeling was beautiful; it was terrifying. I would never be able to harness it, I knew, I would never be able to control it. I felt like Icarus, gaspin in what was awesome, transcending fear.

This is undeniably an extremely brave, raw and hard-hitting book, so honest that it almost flays the skin off the reader. I cannot help wondering how her husband, but above all her son will feel in the coming years to see these painful moments openly exposed. Does the ‘sharing the experience so that others can see they are not alone in feeling it’ justify this? Or is it a work written as catharsis? Or perhaps the author is trying to untangle the threads, understand the reasons behind this situation and perhaps cast a protective spell, to ensure that this won’t happen again?

In an attempt to be all these things and more, although I loved individual parts of the book, I have to admit that the parts did not really coalesce into a fully satisfactory whole for me.

Whatever its intent, it is certainly a memorable exploration of identity, love and family, one that I am not likely to forget in a hurry… but also one that I had to read in small chunks, to prevent overdosing. I’d perhaps also add, since the title for the award is Young Writer of the Year, that, while Exciting Times did feel like it was written by a young person, Inferno gave the impression of a much older, wiser author.

8 thoughts on “#YoungWriterAward: Inferno by Catherine Cho”

  1. This sounds moving, Marina Sofia, and in its way, powerful. It’s not a topic that we normally see addressed, and, I’d guess, not easy to write about, really. I’m glad that a lot of it drew you in and worked for you, even if there were things that didn’t.

  2. The description you quote sounds so much like it could be a description of someone who has fallen into abyss of paranoid political conspiracy theories so scarily prevalent now, it gave me a shiver. I can see why you needed to read this in small doses.

  3. This sounds like an important book, and one that digs deep, emotionally. I doubt if my reserves are up to the challenge in Times of Covid. Well done for rising to it yourself!

  4. A very thoughtful post about what sounds like a raw and searingly honest book. Like you, I wonder what the other members of her family might feel about the feelings the author is expressing here. A somewhat different situation, I grant you…but nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think of Julie Myerson and the way some of her non-fiction writing impacted on her son…

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