One great thing about being active on social media and discussing books is that you discover authors and publishers that you never would have without it. Recently I was contacted by Five Rivers and given the opportunity to review a couple of their titles. When I was browsing through their catalog I came across a book that I knew I just had to read, A Subtle Thing by Alicia Hendley. This is the novel of a young woman and her struggles with depression and how difficult it is to forge a life with this dark cloud floating over your head. As some of you may know, I am in the midst of struggling with complications of depression and mental health problems (you can read my other blog about this here), so I knew this was going to be a very difficult and personal read for me. I was concerned that this novel would be more of a dissertation on life with depression and weak as a novel, fortunately my fears were unfounded. This is not a novel “about” depression, this is a novel about a wonderful character named Beth who’s life is veiled with this incapacitating disorder. A Subtle Thing is a gritty and raw novel that hits the reader in such a powerful and sincere way that putting it down is simply not an option.
The way the author navigates Beth’s life, through both the ups and downs, is very well done. There are some issues that almost always pop up in “first-books”, like some dialog that could be polished a bit more or the occasional chapter with pacing issues, but the characters are so wonderful these minor flaws are easily overlooked. In reading Hendley’s book you can tell there is definitely a lot of talent there that will become sharper and sharper as she, hopefully, releases more books. The story doesn’t follow an exact linear narrative, with many of Beth’s important episodes being told through flashbacks during therapy sessions; this technique works very well for this story and as we see more and more of the central character’s life we become further invested in her.
Beth in A Subtle Thing reminds me quite a bit of Baby in Lullabies for Little Criminals. Both are victims of outside forces and people. The darker periods of Beth’s life are hard to read; for anyone who has gone or is going through any mental health problems themselves these parts of the book are almost unbearable to read, but I have to qualify this by saying I mean that in the most positive way possible. The accuracy in the descriptions is spot on. The way the author explores this character’s thoughts as she sits in the doctor’s office doing the depression score test (which, like Beth, I am also at the point of memorization), the fear as you get that first bottle of anti-depressant medication in your hand, that moment when you suddenly realize that things just aren’t right, and of course the self-destructive thoughts and actions that come along with everything else are heart-wrenching. These chapters would move even the most hardened readers to tears.
Beth’s story is one of a very serious issue that the general public is still far from understanding. Mental illness still has a very heavy stigma and sense of shame for many people, which is 100% undeserved. Characters in this novel exemplify the damage that people who do not understand these conditions can do on those who are sitting at the bottom of this deep, dark abyss. I have always believed that literature is the truest lens with which we have as a society to examine ourselves. In my opinion this is a must read for anyone, but especially anyone working in health care, education, or anyone who has family members struggling with mental health. Alicia Hendley gets it, and with it, she has written a very memorable book.