Set in a leafy parish town in East Sussex, Jasper Gibson’s second novel tells the story of Tom Tuplow, a former lawyer who has endured two decades of mental ill health as a result of heavy psychedelic drug use in his youth. He hears voices – or rather, one voice: that of the “Octopus God” Malamock, an overbearing presence that taunts and rebukes him in mannered language. (It says things such as: “The caprice of experience … shall silver the death chamber.”) On the advice of his long-suffering sister, Tom participates in a trial for a new anti-psychotic drug, and tries to rebuild his life.
Gibson’s narrator-protagonist is an affable and engaging companion. Tom is lippy with doctors and huggy with strangers; one minute he’s officiously articulate, the next a jabbering wreck. Somewhat surprisingly for a novel about mental health, there is relatively little interiority here – it’s mostly action and dialogue, delivered in brisk and lively prose. Sprinklings of gallows humour and dry bathos riff on the absurd human comedy of mental illness. (“I stand up and headbutt the television. It is crunchier than expected.”) The novel’s portrayal of mental health facilities is pointedly unflattering: during a stint in a psychiatric unit in north London, Tom witnesses staff using excessive force to subdue patients, and being trigger-happy with sedative injections; one of the nurses is secretly sleeping with a patient.
Tom likens his treatment to the persecution of heretics in the middle ages: “It’s about getting rid of my faith, the fundamental essence of who I am.” Sure enough, when the drug does its job and the voice is temporarily banished, Tom is left rudderless. The reader is invited to wonder if Malamock had actually been a benign influence all along – the voice of Tom’s better self. This is a brave position to take insofar as it pushes against received wisdom on mental health, evoking the radical politics of the anti-psychiatry movement. The Octopus Man trades heavily on the easy emotive pull of its subject matter – the poignant melodrama of disrupted lives and frayed friendships – but its allegorical point is well made: perhaps, as a society, we are too quick to medicalise madness, and overly wedded to psychiatric interventions whose long-term effects can be even more harmful than the conditions they are meant to cure.
• The Octopus Man is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.