Customer Reviews (2)
Lack of originality is certainly not a criticism one could level at Something's Wrong by Sam Smith. This is one of the most innovative novels I have read for some time. The form is that of a series of transcripts of tape recordings of someone who, as it becomes rapidly clear, has some serious mental health problems. This is a harrowing work, which raises some disturbing issues about mental health care generally, and care homes in particular. You feel yourself literally getting into the mind of the character, and caring about what happens to him - both rare attributes in novels these days. I am sorry that lack of time prevents me from writing a fuller review.
Guy Fraser-Sampson http://pursewardenblog.blogspot.com/
Something’s Wrong: in fact as we find out during the course of many short monologues spoken into a tape recorder by the narrator, Robert, there are many things wrong in the sleepy little coastal town of Widdercliffe, and the world it represents. Robert lives in a group home, The Grove, as a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic under a Home Office Section. As Robert gradually reveals his story to us, we discover that thirty years ago he got into a pub fight and hurt his opponent so badly that he was convicted and put under a Home Office Section. Robert had used ‘excessive' violence in the fight. Robert is labeled as mentally unstable, and treated for it with any number of treatments. He realizes that if he’d been merely a pub-brawling thug he’d have served his sentence, gotten out, then lived as a free man.
In the first half of the novel, we see that there’s plenty wrong with Robert and his fellow residents at The Grove group home and their supposed supervisors. There’s the sort of unease all around that a reader senses in Kafka’s The Trial, for example. There’s plenty wrong with Widdercliffe too: Robert is especially fearful of the gangs of young people who roam the streets with little to do but to get into trouble and waste time. Widdercliffe is a dumping ground not only for Robert and the other residents of The Grove:
‘Widdercliffe seemed to be the kind of town people ended up in. Everyone I met, everyone I listened to, seemed to be from somewhere else. Had drifted to there. Ended up there. A last place. On the land’s edge. No further to go. So they got to lead a life on the edge. Edge of a culture, edge of national events, edge of bankruptcy . . . edge of legality, edge of homelessness, edge of sobriety, edge of sanity . . .
More like a town holding on by the edge. Life balanced on a knife edge.’
Robert’s voice in this novel is as compelling as the voice of Dostoyevsky’s narrator in Notes from Underground. In both cases the speaker is an outsider who sees too clearly the shortcomings of the world that won’t accept him.
Robert’s voice throughout 200 pages is crisp and clear and sometimes achieves a sort of effortless plain poetry, as in the passage above about Widdercliffe, and in this glimpse of a black cat:
‘In the bottom of the hedge I just glimpsed the black oil of a slinking cat. Blackbirds all around are piping their alarm.’
Robert has sharp eyes and words for the characters around him too. Here he describes two new workers at The Grove:
‘The new woman’s got a silly perm and a face like a punctured tyre. She has that pressed-down posture of a put-upon woman. And, new here, she has the quick defensive smile that says she’s frightened of every one of us.’
‘Corduroy man also tried too hard to be friendly. And he’s got those loose lips, which can’t seem to compress together without sliding past each other. When he speaks his mouth turns into a spout. And not only does he have a hip-sinking stance, his belly pushes his t-shirt out.’
Corduroy man tells Robert that the staff at The Grove are now called ‘Support Workers' because they support Robert and the other residents as they move towards independent living. Robert comments:
‘Every time I see him, and his bad posture, I now think of Support Hose. Like my Gran used to wear.’
In the second half of the novel, there’s something particularly wrong: Robert discovers that the owners of The Grove are pillaging money from his Trust Fund and he realizes that he has to do something about it. Robert is in a precarious position. If he causes too much trouble then at any point he might be taken by the authorities and ‘jailed’ inside the prison of medication and treatment in a secure facility.
Some of Robert’s mental problems were clearly caused by the “treatments” meant to help him. For example, because of excessive 'treatment’ he has trouble with his memory. Robert and his attorney, Mr. Barraclough, go out to a local café to talk about Robert’s case. Robert’s mental difficulties are obvious when he remembers eating there before with Mr. Barraclough, though because of his heavy medication at the time, all he can remember is his plate:
‘I can see that white plate now. Which is strange. So many holes in my memory—left there by all the let’s-try-this treatments—depots, ECTs, and some I can’t at this moment, ironically, recall.’
Robert reveals more of his awful life. One time when he was allowed to go home for a visit to his parents, he was heavily medicated—‘God knows what pharmacological cocktail was at work in my cerebral cortex’—and ended up tying his mother to a chair with brown parcel tape: 'Surprisingly difficult to break. And so much of it on one roll.’ Robert’s mother ends up killing herself, hanging herself in an orchard, leaving a note: ‘Without my son, my true son, there is no point to this life. He has been stolen from me.’ In this Smith shows the often devastating impact of mental illness on the entire family.
Because of his troubles at The Grove, Robert plans then executes his escape from this group home to a flat in the nearby town of Collingwood. In Collingwood Robert enjoys a brief respite:
‘I felt free of the past too that sixth week. This was my own life now being decided upon by me. I was, I am, free of medication. And I have freed myself from the “virtual asylum of medication”’
But Robert’s situation away from The Grove is precarious indeed. He knows full well what will happen to him if he gets into trouble:
‘Being on a Home Office Section and having been in Secure I will be seen as mentally unstable and doctors have to justify their salaries. One form of medication or another will get written up. And should I have the temerity to refuse just one of their tablets, then the nurses will hold me down and I will be injected. Troublemaker!
And before I know it I will be numb-headed again and back in somewhere like The Grove. With a thought lurking deep in the recesses that Something’s Wrong.’
Robert cannot stay in Collingwood because he fears he will be arrested and anyway he’s running out of resources, so he records a last tape sent to Mr. Barracough, then heads off into ‘the great unknown.’
In an 'addendum,’ we learn more about Robert’s journey into the ‘great unknown.’ 17 days after Robert leaves Collingwood, he (or someone using his name) registered in a Bristol night shelter. 2 weeks later, someone used his name in a Swindon night hostel, though there are no CCTV images of Robert there. 3 weeks after, someone used Robert’s cashpoint card in Reading.
The ending of Something’s Wrong reads like the ‘Missing’ section in the UK’s street publication, The Big Issue:
Robert is one of the many ‘missing persons,’ and like too many of this lost tribe he has had mental health trouble.
Sam Smith’s novel is artfully written and revealing indeed. Through his narrator, Robert, we’re given as readers a first person narrative of what it is to be on the outside of society. We might well judge Robert for his crime and for his anti-social behavior, but he too surely judges all of us for not only wanting to keep outsiders on the outside, but for working hard to keep them there and giving them no viable options to be let back in.
Brian Daldorph: Coal City Review #27, Kansas
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