Sheelah Egan. And A Time to Die. Book Pal, 2010. ISBN: 9781921791840
And a Time to Die isn’t an especially great book. It is, though, a deeply felt, personal contribution to community understanding of what it is to suffer a mental illness, or to care for someone who does. A hunt around the interwebs for author Sheelah Egan reveals that she is an advocate for sufferers of mental illness, a passionate gardener and an active Christian. All three of these elements are evident to varying degrees in And a Time to Die.
The story charts the gradual disintegration of one woman’s ordinary suburban Canberra life. It is a slow, almost imperceptible slide, so that the strange becomes normal life almost without anyone noticing. Liz seems always to have heard the voices all around her, criticising her, taunting, and threatening her. She is amazed not that they are there, but that the people around her, even those who care for her, seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the voices or act against them. Her friend’s husband Simon is the only person she has met who is prepared to admit that the voices and their complaints and instructions to him are hard to separate from the rest of the world. When Simon dies in an accident soon after their conversation, Liz knows it is her fault, because he spoke to her the unspeakable truth.
The only place the word schizophrenia appears in And a Time to Die is on the back cover. The word is not thought or spoken at all in the story, because Liz’s illness is never diagnosed. Her tormenter is never identified, although it slowly takes her career, her love of music, her marriage, her husband and her children. This for me is the most powerful aspect of Egan’s work, attempting to give us some small understanding of what it may be like to experience schizophrenia from the inside, where the voices, the anxiety and the confusion are real, and are not explained with a name.
Egan says on her blog that “I write about life as I have seen it, but I write fiction, using metaphor and symbol.” I didn’t, though, feel there was much metaphor or symbolism in And a Time To Die. This is a workmanlike telling of a narrative of a suburban life in Canberra, with gardening in Garran, football at Manuka Oval, picnics at Cotter, and a lonely apartment in Woden that is walking distance from the police station, with the Southcare helicopter churning overhead carrying another life in the balance. Parliament House may “loom” and the Brindabellas may be “distant mountains of various shades of blue [that] enticed the travellers ever forward” but the conversations between characters were for me often stilted and unnatural, and their interior monologues repetitive and protracted.
The book’s cover calls this a novella, but at 243 pages it’s not, really. It could have been, with a good edit. There are some very long scenes where characters, particularly Liz’s husband Mark and his work colleague Jim, each ponder their own feelings, motivations and options. In one paragraph Jim asks himself no less than ten questions, and answers three of them, and the device becomes tedious fairly quickly. A chapter is devoted to Jim’s musings on religion and death without, in my opinion, doing anything much to further the story or our understanding of Liz and Mark’s worlds.
A copy edit to get rid of all of the stray punctuation would have been good too. I guess this is one of the difficulties of self-publishing, when your words are too familiar to you to allow you to see the tiny errors in the proof.
I was very troubled by the religious overtones at the very end of the book. I don’t believe for a moment that it is Egan’s intent, but I fear that Liz’s jumbled thoughts, when read with the book’s postscript, could be interpreted as meaning that death is the only way out that God may offer to sufferers of mental illness. There are other options, but they need to start with recognition, understanding, diagnosis, treatment and support. These are things that Liz never receives. Egan’s book may just, though, contribute a little to them being given to others in the future.