Review: Bellevue Square

A copy of Bellevue Square on a bookshelf.

Happy World Book Day, fellow readers!

I wanted to spend today talking about one of the best books I’ve read so far this year: Bellevue Square, by Michael Redhill. I read this story back in February for my book club, and have wanted to talk about it ever since. It’s been hard to put words down for this one, but I think I’m finally ready.

(I’m going to stop you right here and let you know that if you don’t want any spoilers about this book, don’t read this post. I’m sorry, but in order to write this review, I had to ruin the plot.)

I finished reading Bellevue Square while waiting for an oil change for my car. When I finished, I closed the book, and immediately started crying in the waiting room of the Jiffy Lube I was in. It was embarrassing, but I couldn’t help myself.

This book won the 2017 Giller Prize, and for a good reason. I know a lot of people didn’t like it: they found it difficult to follow, didn’t know what genre it fell under, and were perpetually confused by both the plot and the main characters. I agree that the book was very confusing at times, but I believe that was the author’s intention.

Bellevue Square follows the story of Jean Mason, who believes she has a doppelganger right in her very own neighbourhood of Kensington Market, Toronto. Regulars in her bookshop swear Jean looks just like someone else they’ve met, who goes by the name of Ingrid Fox.

Naturally, Jean is intrigued. Who is Ingrid? Do they really look alike? Why are so many people convinced they are the same person?

The story continues, and the first section of the book gives the impression of a psychological thriller. Jean spends the majority of her time stalking Bellevue Square while looking for Ingrid, and meets a variety of people (many being drug addicts, or patients of nearby mental health facilities).

Soon after, though, one of Jean’s friends is murdered, and you find out that Jean and Ingrid are in fact the same person. The rest of the story is told from their perspectives, although it’s difficult to tell who is who, and what, exactly, is real.

Whoever the main character is—Jean or Ingrid—she is incredibly unreliable. She can’t remember aspects of her childhood, she wanders around Toronto aimlessly, and she often tells her husband information that simply isn’t true.

It’s utterly confusing, until she wakes up in Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. You learn that Jean/Ingrid has been fighting for her sanity, and it becomes clear that her mishmash of information is due to her mental health. She’s not lying on purpose, her compulsive behaviour isn’t just to annoy her husband, and her confusion regarding who she is is thanks to a crippling mental illness.

I’ve spoken about my struggles with my own mental illness on here before, and I’m about to do it again. The reason I loved Bellevue Square so much was because the author does an amazing job of getting into the mind of someone who is struggling, and showing the world how difficult it can be.

I’ve been battling my anxiety and depression for years. I’ve been on and off different medications, tried counselling, and have spent more time crying on my floor than I would like to admit. Some days, I can’t even keep track of what I’ve done because my stress is so crippling. While I didn’t relate exactly to what Jean/Ingrid experienced in this book, the larger themes of dealing with a mental illness stuck. I held this story close because it was so similar to what I experience on a regular basis.

This book struck me so hard that I was scared to discuss it with my book club. I was ashamed at how much I related to the main character, and was worried that I would be judged. I actually told my friend that I didn’t want to attend, but she urged me to. I’m glad that I did. While I cried (a lot) during the discussion, I’m grateful that I went and shared my thoughts and feelings. My voice was heard, and I discovered that I was not the only one in the group to have similar experiences.

I always try to talk about my experiences with mental health, but it’s hard. The stigma is real, and while I want others to know that they are not alone, I often feel judged for doing so. One line in Bellevue Square really stuck with me in regards to these feelings:

“Medicine has helped me, it’s helped Jimmy. And more people should recognize that if you can treat it [mental health] with medicine, it must be like every other disease and no one should be ashamed to have it, and others shouldn’t be afraid of it.”

Jean/Ingrid says these lines when she realizes that she should not be ashamed of seeking help, and I couldn’t agree more. If mental health was treated the same way as physical illnesses, there would be a lot less stigma, and people would be less afraid to seek treatment. It sounds silly, but since you can’t see a mental illness, it is often overlooked.

I could go on about Bellevue Square forever, but instead, I’ll recommend that you read it for yourself. Yes, it’s a confusing story, and you’ll likely get frustrated, but that’s the point. Life isn’t always simple—it’s rough and raw and emotional—and that’s exactly what this book is, too.

 

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