Is skin color relevant when talking about mental health? In her novel The fat lady sings British author Jacqueline Roy answers this question with a resounding ‘yes’. A common thread in this book is the idea that especially people with dark skin, as a result of the racism they fall victim to, suffer from a constant loss of self-confidence and self-esteem. This makes them vulnerable with the result that an above average number of them end up in prison or in a psychiatric institution.
The proverb will it is not over until the fat lady sings, but in Roy’s novel, the story begins only with a fat, singing lady. Her name is Gloria, she’s in her mid – 50s, and her life is dominated by the loss of her partner Josie, who was killed in a train wreck. Since the tragic incident, Gloria has suffered from insomnia. So she spends the nights singing while doing housework, such as vacuuming.
This does not fall into good soil with her neighbors, and eventually Gloria ends up in a mental institution. There, she attaches herself to the patient in bed next to her, Merle, like Gloria, a woman of Caribbean descent but about thirty years younger. The fat lady sings tells the story of both women, in alternating chapters. The Result is an intrusive but regularly humorous and ultimately encouraging novel about the world of mental health care from a perspective that has been largely underexposed: black people.
The fat lady sings originally appeared in 2000 and was barely noticed at the time. Only when Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo created the ‘Black Britain: Writing Back’ series for Penguin last year and included Roy’s novel did the book gain attention.
Although plot-wise not autobiographical, The fat lady sings inspired by Roy’s personal experiences. As a 14-year-old, she first had to deal with what in retrospect can be called depression and ended up in an institution. In the years that followed, she not only managed to escape her situation as a psychiatric patient, but also studied English, took a master’s degree in postcolonial literature, became an associate professor at Manchester Metropolitan University – and thus wrote a novel.
IN The fat lady sings two narrators speak. Gloria’s is definitely bubbly. She is alternately stubborn, brave, provocative, engaging, cheerful and funny. Every now and then she is in several moods at once: “How deep can one sink, I would say, if it were not for the fact that I have not been really tall all my life, unless it comes to the numbers on my weight.” She sometimes makes sober, cruel observations (‘It’s a real English funeral, completely without heat’), but other times gives rise to serious doubts about the reliability of her statements.Gloria’s sound gives the book the necessary moments of ease.
Merle’s voice is completely different. Her stories are more hesitant, more uncertain. Moreover, her words are interrupted by what the author calls ‘auditory hallucinations’ in her afterword: she hears voices comment on her thoughts and memories, often blaming or condescending. Sometimes they are echoes of statements that others have made about her in the past (a nurse who will give an injection: ‘So hold her head back. I do not want the bloody rabies.’), Sometimes they are expressions of themselves reproach or self-loathing (“dirty girl”, “dirty whore”).
From a literary point of view, the chapters in which Merle speaks are the most interesting. Her swirling mix of memories, hallucinations, diary fragments, and frightening observations make the devastating effect of the marginalization and oppression she experienced throughout her life very tangible.
As the book progresses, it becomes more and more clear how both women have ended up in their current situation. The ingredients are sad and familiar at the same time: the loss of a partner, aggression based on your sexual orientation, sexual abuse, abuse of power.
In this novel, as mentioned, another important aspect is added: skin color, culture and race. And it is extremely relevant in several respects. On the one hand, Roy makes it clear that black people with mental health problems are not accepted by their own environment. After all, the prevailing thought there is that recognizing psychological problems equals surrender, submission, and weakness: you bring black society down with it.
In addition, the approach to mental health care in Western countries is based on the values of the dominant group: white people. The question of whether people with a different cultural background may need different treatment is not asked. If one thing emerges from Gloria and Merle’s lives, it’s the conclusion: a psychiatric patient is lonely, but a black psychiatric patient is even more lonely.
Yet the key word in this novel is militancy. And when Gloria (who has called that name for a reason) in the last line of the book opens her mouth and starts singing, the old saying about the fat lady still sounds.
Jacqueline Roy: The fat lady sings† Translated from English by Adiëlle Westercappel. Signature; € 22.99.