#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.

Rewatching #ThreeColours and Other Films

Even before the lockdown, I’d started an extensive programme of film viewing with my older son. However, he is a bit of a stickler about his planning and is proving truculent about watching films which are not on his current list of ‘must watch in 2020’, even if they are classics or might be very much to his taste. So I end up watching and rewatching quite a lot of films on my own too.

One trilogy I am very glad I rewatched was Kieslowski’s Three Colourswhich arose quite spontaneously from a Twitter exchange with @jacquiwine and @messy_tony. Quite a few others joined in and we even created a hashtag with the British spelling #threecolours.

My favourite remains Blue, with its amazing music and such a poignant description of grief. I had forgotten details such as finding a nest of mice in the Paris flat, but I had remembered the scene where Julie trails the back of her hand against the rough stone wall and wounds herself. I found Olivier rather creepy and difficult to stomach this time round and wish Julie had chosen differently at the end. White continues to be difficult for me to watch, as I remember the lawless, difficult post-Communist years and feeling like a second-hand citizen in the West all too well. This time round I found it difficult to empathise at all with the Delpy character – she seemed like such a blank (perhaps deliberately so – the nail upon which Eastern Europe hangs all of their hopes, desires, ideals), while actor Zbigniew Zamachowski’s expressive eyes made me almost ready to forgive him even as he becomes as much of an asshole as his ex-wife. With Red, I was surprised that I’d forgotten it was set in Geneva – although at the time I had no connection to Geneva at all, so the location seemed less important and I just assumed it was France. The parallel storyline of Auguste and his personalised weather forecaster seemed almost a nuisance, despite its resonance upon the judge’s story, while the ending felt rather melodramatic and forced. I found the gradual unfolding of the prickly friendship between Valentine and the judge far more interesting, with Valentine being the most sympathetic (though not necessarily the most interesting) character in the whole trilogy. She is, after all, the only one who helps the recurring character of a frail, hunch-backed elderly person trying to push a bottle into the bottle-bank.

Another rewatch, this time with the boys, was the first series of The Wire (I watched it in fits and starts when it first came out, since I never had Sky or other paid for channels, so it felt quite fresh to me as well). The sense of hopelessness felt much more palpable to me now (or is it because I am older) and my favourite character remains Kima, although I might have annoyed my kids by exclaiming nearly every time I saw Dominic West or Idris Elba ‘Look how young they were back then!’

I have also resubscribed to Mubi and have enjoyed quite a few films there over the past month. The most noteworthy were Bong Joon-Ho’s stunning and moving Mother; Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love which is visually one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen (and a real tear-jerker); Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, viscerally disturbing but very powerful, charismatic acting from the two main characters; and a 1950s gem from Japan Our Town, featuring a larger than life main character struggling with the modernisation of Japan after the war. Lest you think I’ve turned completely Asian, I was also impressed with Melville’s Army of Shadows about the French Resistance, where the violence is buried only slightly deeper below the surface than in the Korean films. The historical facts add more depth and gravitas to the noirish direction we’re used to from his gangster films. Lourdes by Jessica Hausner was full of tiny satirical details about miracle healings at the pilgrimage site of Lourdes and yet ultimately made you question your lack of faith, and the Polish film Idadirected by Pawel Pawlikowski, has a young would-be nun discovering her family’s Jewish origin and their fate during the war.