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BookBrowse Reviews Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

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Imagine Me Gone

by Adam Haslett

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett X
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
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  • First Published:
    May 2016, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2017, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Mental illness plagues two generations of an Anglo-American family in Haslett's moving second novel.

"Something's happened. It's my brother." Alec and his older brother Michael have been staying at their family's Maine vacation cabin for the past month. The first chapter ends with Alec running out to get help from a lobsterman. Although we don't know yet exactly what has happened, his words introduce a note of foreboding that lasts all through this melancholy novel about the long-lasting effects of mental illness on one family (see 'Beyond the Book').

Narration duties are split between the five immediate members: father John, mother Margaret, and siblings Alec, Michael, and Celia. By giving each main character a first-person voice, Haslett offers readers a full picture of how mental illness takes a toll not only on the sufferers themselves but also on those who love and care for them.

In the first chapter narrated by the mother, Margaret, the family is preparing for a trip to that same Maine cabin, this time in the late 1970s. She recalls how she and her husband, John, met in his native England in the early 1960s. After a trip home to the States for Christmas in 1963, she returned to England to find that her fiancé had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. To her surprise, this was not the first time John's depression and anxiety had seen him hospitalized. Knowing the full truth, she still agreed to marry him, but for the past 15 years she has feared that he might have another breakdown. Over the years John's work for an investment firm has taken them and their three children back and forth between London and the outskirts of Boston.

John's descriptions of what mental illness is like are among the most striking passages in the book. "Against the monster, I've always wanted meaning," he says, but "in the fog there is nothing to see. The monster you lie with is your own. The struggle is endlessly private. ...The beast is a projector too, every day throwing up before me pictures of what I'm incapable of." Most worrying for John is the fact that his son Michael is exhibiting increasingly worrying behavior – signs that he, too, struggles with his mental health.

A precocious child who uses big vocabulary words, Michael doesn't seem to know the difference between his vivid imagination and reality. To start with, this is simply amusing. His letters to Aunt Penny about a catastrophic boat crossing to England are very funny until the exaggerations start to seem bizarre, even hallucinatory. Donna Summer is the onboard entertainment! His mother came down with Marburg virus and they stopped in the Azores to deliver naked, extradited criminals!

Later sections from Michael, who becomes obsessed with African-American history and music, take on the form of a psychiatrist's intake report or a loan forbearance letter, which Michael uses as excuses to write his own potted, satirical autobiography. His sections are wonderfully humorous, a nice counterbalance to some of the novel's aching sadness. Yet this can also veer towards black humor, as when Michael writes in his medical history that "all four [grandparents] suffered from Eventual Death Syndrome (EDS)."

The novel's title phrase comes from a challenge John sets for his two youngest children when they're out in a boat on one of their Maine vacations. As a kind of safety test, he asks them to act out what they'd do if something happened to him and they couldn't start the engine. "Imagine me gone, imagine it's just the two of you. What do you do?" he asks. He then lies down in the bottom of the boat and closes his eyes, refusing to answer questions no matter how desperate the kids become. It's an odd, morbid scene that only adds to the novel's premonitory tone.

The multiple points of view fit together beautifully in this four-decade family symphony, although I sometimes felt that sibling Celia, a San Francisco social worker unsure how she feels about marriage and motherhood, was one main character too many – her story doesn't contribute very much to the whole. I might have liked to hear more from John instead, as his rivals Michael's for the most memorable voice. Still, Celia delivers two of the novel's best lines: "We're not individuals. We're haunted by the living as well as the dead." The parents and siblings here are interdependent in many ways, especially as they try to rescue each other from the present reality and aftermath of mental illness. This is a powerful read for fans of family stories.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2016, and has been updated for the February 2017 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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