Back in 2013, Jasper Gibson wrote a comedy thriller called A Bright Moon for Fools (reviewed for Shiny here) in which archetypal old reprobate Harry Christmas runs away from his London life to Caracas and has the time of his life until a nasty reminder of his old life arrives to upset things. This book was very funny, but also you gradually came to empathise with Harry and end up firmly on his side however awful he was. I very much enjoyed this novel and hoped that Gibson would write more.
Finally, eight years later, another novel by Gibson emerged. It got excellent reviews and I bought myself a copy, but somehow didn’t get around to reading it. I’m so glad that this blog tour for the paperback issue nudged me, for it is superb and a real page-turner, but not for the usual reasons. Tom is our narrator, and it begins:
Tess is driving, looking at me sideways trying to guess what I am thinking about though she has no idea what I’m thinking about but just in case she’s right I start thinking about something else. ‘And he’s OK with this?’ she says. ‘You haven’t been electrocuted?
Tess is Tom’s sister, and she is taking him to a meeting with Megan, his case worker, to discuss taking part in a drug trial. It appears that a drug usually prescribed for persistent athlete’s foot is showing potential as a treatment for schizophrenia. Tom, however, is in denial about his schizophrenia diagnosis. He does hear one voice, that of Malamock, the Octopus God – who ‘electrocutes’ or sends currents buzzing down his body to heat it up when he is displeased. With the threat of being silenced, Malamock doesn’t want him to join the trial, naturally. The meeting doesn’t go well. He catches the bus home to his bedsit where he lives simply, with a shrine to Malamock in one corner.
A few days later, Tom is due to take the train into London to meet his old friend Dan, whom he hasn’t seen for many years. Tess is concerned, but Tom is feeling upbeat and manages the train and tube (just!) with little intervention from Him. The problems begin when he and Dan meet and they discover they have little in common any more, Dan having moved on from their student life, and Tom leaves early – but takes the wrong tube train, leading to full-blown panic.
I am triggering.
White ribbons crackle and burst before me, the ecstasy of ore, a rage of light, and I understand, I accept my annihilation as a blasphemer of the profligate universe whose orphan, Earth, mewls cruel power, and whose pontiff, the Octopus God, whose names are Malamock, Nicor, Kanaloa, the Foundation Spirit, who yet is the thing itself, grips me like these iron bench struts, pulling at this concrete, at this land. Oh Britain! My island! You are not Christian rock you are ancient sea-spit and we owe our lineage to the crawling ocean, the Octopus, a force far older than the Mother, Tyr, Grim, Frig, the devil or his tormentor and yet for His torture, for the burning of my had, I have touched the centre of all things and felt the burning light–oh! […]
A constellation of black holes gulps me down into the deep volcano as a syringe pops balloon animals full of blood in some dream that peels itself apart.
My mind rains to pieces.
After this psychotic episode Tom awakes in a psychiatric unit having been sectioned. The regime in the unit is far from ideal, but he does make a friend in Missy. He also makes an enemy in an abusive male nurse. He’ll eventually get out, but only by agreeing to join the drug trial. Tess who’d been driven to her own near-breakdown by the stress of looking after her brother and managing her own job and family, is really glad. The medication seems to be helping Tom, but will it remain that way? I can’t spoil it for you!
Jasper Gibson was inspired to write this novel after the death of a family member who had lived with a schizophrenia diagnosis for many years. To me, as a reader without any personal experience of the illness, although I realise that the diagnosis covers a broad spectrum of symptoms, his accuracy in describing Tom’s life shows a great understanding of the condition and huge empathy for his protagonist (and the long-suffering Tess). The section set on the psychiatric ward is really quite harrowing, and the lack of understanding and inadequacy of the treatment Tom receives is shocking.
Tom was studying to be a lawyer – a potential future legal star – when bad drugs experiences led to increasingly bad mental health. As a character, he has an eloquence typical of the profession, and that capacity to reason and argue his case even when under the influence of Malamock – as in the drug trial meeting at the beginning!
However, throughout the novel, Gibson tells Tom’s story with humour – this novel is really very funny – but we’re always laughing with Tom, never at him. Tom’s voice is literally unique in fiction, and I loved this novel, which will inspire compassion in every reader and raise awareness of the need for better and more mental health help for those who need it.
I’m so glad that Jasper Gibson not only wrote a brilliant second novel, but that it is such a moving, yet still humorous one. Highly recommended indeed.
Source: Own copy. Jasper Gibson, The Octopus Man (W&N, 2021) – now in paperback, 368 pages.
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