As the story unfolds, we learn about Saffee's mother's early life, her parents' newlywed days, and her own sad childhood. We also see her mother's illness burgeon and pass a confused heritage to her daughters. The story unfolds in a series of episodes that are touching, embarrassing, sad, alarming, confusing, and sometimes frustrating.
As Saffee comes of age, we wonder as she does, Is she destined to follow her mother's path, or will she find a way to live a very different life? When she's saddled with the unwanted Norwegian table, covered in layers of paint that symbolize her mother's unstable mind, she finds an opportunity to work toward redemption and healing.
Fields has a compelling and valuable story to tell. Unfortunately, she does not always tell it in a compelling way. Because I saw myself in this story and believe we need such stories, I wanted to love its characters. But I couldn't get close to them. I felt like I was watching events from a distance, reading a journalistic account of a series of family experiences.
The episodic rhythm feels choppy. The book's sweeping coverage (more than 100 years and four generations) means its descriptions of people and incidents are sometimes summarized rather than unfolded, told instead of shown. This also makes character development—and engagement even with Safee—a challenge.
The author uses a third-person perspective, with a variable level of omniscience, sometimes presenting the story through one person's eyes, then suddenly switching to someone else's. This leaves readers guessing who we should relate to and what is really going on within the characters. Then, as we begin to draw closer to living in the story, suddenly a narrative voice comments, again from a distance, to interpret characters' motivations and desires without having shown us the existence of such desires in the first place.
Still, within the episodes she describes, Field's book realistically captures the small tragedies, hard to recognize as they unfold, that add up to great sorrow. It portrays the everyday losses that accompany a life hampered by untreated mental illness. The confusion and bewilderment. The efforts to cope. The urge to escape and to paint over wounds that instead need healing. The need to relearn so much of what should have been learned the first time, at the knee of a parent who didn't know what was real. To feel valuable when a parent lacked the capacity to impart that sense of value.
I appreciate that Field has not tried to answer a lot of questions about mental illness and why people suffer. She has told a story that, with some flaws in execution, rings true. I hope it will help readers understand their own experiences and the struggles of their friends and neighbors who are thrown into crisis by mental illness. I hope it will point those same readers toward redemption, the kind that removes all the layers of anesthetic we use to try—and fail—to numb our pain, and replaces them with beauty that can come only through grief and surrender.
Amy Simpson is author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press). She also serves as editor of Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership. You can find her at www.AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.