Bizarre – but then that’s life.
Publisher: Windmill Books (Random House)
First Published: 2000
Date Reviewed: 17th February 2014
Mona’s childhood came to an effective end when her father became ill. Holidays ceased to occur, her father stopped being interested in anything, and Mona coped by becoming a quitter. Successful and talented, she slowly quit everything she was good at before she became too successful or happy. Passionate about maths, the one interest she didn’t give up, she is given a teaching job despite a lack of formal qualifications, and comes to love the job, but her coping method isn’t quite usual, even amongst those who are also unusual.
An Invisible Sign Of My Own is a focused take on life and all its idiosyncrasies. Further than the superstition mentioned in the blurb, the book studies obsessive compulsiveness and depression. It is, at its heart, a look at two groups of people who are often one and the same – those who cope in unique ways, and those who live in ways that aren’t the norm.
The book is at once very positive and negative. It looks at idiosyncrasies and dark issues in the same bizarre way as Bender’s later work, The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake, whilst having a foundation of pure despair. This is not the book to read whilst you are upset yourself, indeed whilst the conclusion may show a sort of conquering of depression, the atmosphere of the story and characters are dark enough to be almost too easy to relate to if you’re having a bad day. This is of course as much a drawback as a triumph. Bender’s choice of idiosyncrasies may for the most part be unrealistic, as much as the word can be used when dealing with the subject, but if anything this helps the reader emphasise and/or understand more. By having that distance between reader and book – the distance of the distinct behaviours – the content is more welcoming, because anyone who has experienced depression, OCD, and/or the sort of tragedies in the book, is going to find it easier to see it from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. The pain may be the same, but the difference in delivery means that you’re not going to feel targeted and at the mercy of an author whose other characters dislike what they see in those who aren’t coping.
The story, in which no quotation marks are used, is somewhat predictable, but it is obvious that this is part of the idea. In order to understand Mona as the author wishes you too, you have to see where the book is headed. Mona is at once the main character and one of many. She may be the narrator but the story focuses on, for example, the plight of a child whose parent is dying of cancer, just as much. What Bender shows, via the subtext, is how important it is that society in general truly recognises that people cope with pain and despair in different ways and that when those ways do not fit the norm, or what is expected, these people are still looked after. An Invisible Sign Of My Own isn’t about leaving people to fend for themselves (so long as the issues are known), indeed it is very much the opposite, and due to that it forces you to look beyond appearances. In the case of the child of the parent with cancer you have a child that looks for cancer – indeed almost hopes for cancer – in everyone she meets due to her undisclosed feeling of detachment, whose idea of numbers in nature is morbid, naïve, and dangerous, and who, for her young age, suggests things such as suicide as though they were something to do when bored. This is a girl too young to really realise what she is saying whilst knowing exactly what is happening. Other children, albeit not faced with terminal illness, show how naïvety about subjects they don’t yet understand have disastrous consequences. And Bender lets the disaster happen, to shock, to teach, to illustrate just how important care and education are.
An Invisible Sign Of My Own is at once easy and difficult to read. It’s strangeness can at times bely its message, suggesting that Bender just wrote a lot of madness without anything in particular to say, or worse, that she thinks it is okay. It’s tough getting to the heart of it, and likely often times you’ll wonder what in the world you’re reading. It may be barmy but that’s the surface dressing; it’s worth reading to get a glimpse of lives that don’t tick boxes, and there is plenty relevance in its content to fit our lives in the non-fictional world, too.
February 21, 2014, 9:19 pm
So many people have mentioned this author, but I haven’t got around to read anything by her yet. One day!
February 23, 2014, 8:08 pm
This sounds.. confusing? I remember feeling that way after reading the second half of The Particular Sadness.. This book might not be for me at the moment, but I certainly want to read it at some point.
February 27, 2014, 12:31 pm
Kailana: I’d say definitely start with Lemon Cake, and keep in mind it’s really bizarre!
Iris: It’s definitely confusing for the characters, and I suppose you could say it as a reader, too. Though more in the sense that you might still wonder why people did what they did. That second half was beyond strange!
March 29, 2014, 6:07 pm
There were no quotation marks in The Red House by Mark Haddon either. It took a while to get a feel for the style in that one. I haven’t read Lemon Cake yet either.