#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.

Shortlist for Young Writer of the Year Award

You may have seen the announcement yesterday about the Shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award. Just in case you have missed it (and admittedly, there has been a lot of newsy stuff to push it off the front page), here it is in its full beauty:

I have to admit that I am quite excited about this shortlist. You’ll probably think that I have to say that if I am part of the Shadow Panel, but the truth is I haven’t read any of them, so am curious and very much looking forward to becoming better acquainted with them.

First of all, I always like to see some poetry on a shortlist, and this time we have two volumes of poetry, both of them debut collections. Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt has been described as elegiac, moving, perceptive and lifting the spirits with simple language and complex thought. Meanwhile, Surge by Jay Bernard is an exploration in poetry of the New Cross Fire of 1981, linking that tragic event with Grenfell and more generally with the experience of being black in the UK nowadays.

Catherine Cho’s book Inferno is non-fiction, a memoir of the author’s time in a psychiatric ward in America, following a severe case of post-partum psychosis. Motherhood is a topic that endlessly fascinates me, and this book seems to express our deepest, darkest fears about becoming possibly a bad mother and harming our child.

Naoise Dolan is a young Irish writer, so obviously she has been compared with Sally Rooney. This is a novel about a young Irish expat stuck in a dead-end job in Hong Kong, and it has been described as a milennial love story hovering between deadpan and sincerity. I am a sucker for expat stories and cross-cultural observations, so this should do the trick for me.

Finally, Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is also a story about displacement, and sounds rather more conventional, according to the blurb at least. A young nurse is running away from her past and ends up in a remote Languedoc village, looking after a bedridden old bully of a man.

Poetry, motherhood, expat community and France – what more could I wish for? The list is tailor-made for me! I also find it interesting that all of these are debuts. I wonder if this has always been the case with this prize, or if it just happened to be a particularly strong year for debuts in 2020. While I like to think that debut writers are encouraged, I sometimes wonder if it’s been even harder for young writers on their second book to see it disappear without trace in a year of delayed publication dates, closed libraries and bookshops, and no in-person literary festivals.

So, which of these are you most excited about reading and why? Can I tempt you to read along at least one or two of these?