Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Book Review: The Bell Jar

Arguably a semi-autobiographical read, 'The Bell Jar' provides an interesting perspective of life in the 1950s; living with mental health is a difficult thing to do, however during that time there was very little tolerance of whatever was deemed not normal. Esther being the main character, transfers from paper to the mind very well; there is a lovely realness surrounding her and her mental illness, her description of surviving everyday life is not only sad but also concerning. The simple but mundane tasks become impossible; on the surface Esther is lucky, having successfully secured an internship with a Fashion magazine, but in reality depression is not something that simply disappears without a fight; each day is a struggle. Esther is an interesting character; an unusual mind and way of depicting the world around her. Esther as a character was very successful. Not only was the portrayal of her mental illness believable, her behaviours felt real; hardly surprising considering the authors own issues with mental health. The idea of mental health transferred well into words and gave an accurate understanding of the feelings of loneliness and helplessness. There was something about Esther that resulted in feelings of concern and sympathy; you just wanted everything to work out for her, yet somehow knew that it couldn’t be so simple.

Sylvia Plath has a beautiful writing style; this book is full of metaphors and similes alongside some wonderful imagery through Esther's inner monologues. The main issue that I had with the storytelling is that although I understood that the story revolves around Esther and her take on the world, the other characters weren’t hugely developed and lacked individual voices. Every other character felt very similar, possibly because they were all described to the reader by an unwell Esther. The beginning and the end of the book were very cohesive, whereas the middle was all a bit strange and misunderstood, although this was the part where Esther’s illness began to overwhelm her everyday life more and more; therefore this is likely to be in correlation to her feelings creating a muddled understanding of the world. The middle part of the novel is a mess simply because Esther is becoming more ill and unable to process everyday life. This novel covers some difficult and often unmentioned topics, such as depression and suicide and so it is a rather painful read; this isn’t a book that I would recommend to someone already struggling with mental health as it does almost encourage suicide as an option in some of the pages, which personally I found uncomfortable. But that being said, this is an important read simply because it teaches the importance of treating mental illness in a humane way, something that the 1950s certainly didn’t, for example the electric shock treatments made me want to cry for Esther. Considering how short this novel is, it took a while to read as it wasn’t the easiest of books in terms of content.

After reading countless reviews referring to this novel as ‘flawless’, and a ‘masterpiece’ I feel as though there must be something wrong with me for not loving this novel that much. Sylvia Plath writes beautifully and I found it a 3 star simply based on that; however, I wasn’t comfortable with the way that this novel reads like a suicide note. As Esther become more ill, I genuinely felt frightened and so it was hard to enjoy this book; in fact, I’d argue that I didn’t enjoy it at all, although that does show how important it is to talk more openly about mental health. As it is semi-autobiographical, it does give the reader a rather intimate understanding of the authors personality and how she must have been feeling when writing this book; as such, that was made me even more uncomfortable reading this as she did indeed commit suicide. The novel is cynical, sarcastic, feminist and yet it is just so difficult to comprehend what you are reading that it is hard going, but the message is loud and clear and one that does need to be heard. I don’t regret reading this book but I doubt I’ll ever be able to face a re-read of it. I feel like if I hadn’t had any mental health issues myself, this book may have affected me less as I could feel what Esther felt. Plath has a unique way of speaking to the reader, through Esther you really feel what you are reading and it wasn’t particularly pleasant so it is disappointing that I didn’t love this as the writing style is compelling.

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