Non-fiction - paperback; Bloomsbury; 224 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
When I first requested Emma Forrest's Your Voice in My Head it was on the basis that it sounded like an interesting memoir, a kind of modern day Bell Jar, about an English-born writer who tried to commit suicide in New York and the psychiatrist who saved her.
What I didn't know was that much of the book revolves around a relationship that Emma had with a Hollywood movie star that ends rather abruptly and leaves her feeling bereft. He's not named in the book and is referred to as GH (which stands for Gypsy Husband) and sounds quite lovely and interesting, albeit a little flakey. I was so intrigued by their romance and then the outfall of their break up that I couldn't resist Googling to see who GH really was.
Suddenly, it all clicked and fell into place.
Perhaps I'm the only person on the planet that, up until a few days ago, did not know that Colin Farell and Emma Forrest were once an item. (To be honest, until I started reading this book, I didn't even know who Emma Forrest was — turns out she had a rather meteoric rise as a teenage music journalist, before penning her first novel aged 21; she's now a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.) But to dismiss this memoir as a kiss-and-tell about Colin Farrell would be wrong. It's not.
If anything the memoir is about grief and what it is like when a patient loses their trusted and much relied upon shrink. In Emma's case her psychiatrist, Dr R, died quite unexpectedly of lung cancer in 2008. She only discovered he had died two weeks after the fact when she rang his office and got the answer machine.
In this memoir, Emma uses Dr R's death as a springboard to write about the way in which this cheerfully optimistic and deeply supportive therapist helped her on the road to recovery after her failed suicide attempt in early 2000. What emerges is an unflinchingly honest account of Emma's psychiatric problems — she would sit up at night and pray to die when she was 12, began self-harming at aged 16 and became bulimic when she moved to New York aged 20. She entered a succession of damaging relationships and would go through manic phases where she worked all night and slept all day. A stint in London's Priory did not solve her problems.
No way out
She gives a wonderful account of what it is like to be caught up in a self-destructive routine — for Emma this was cutting her body and bingeing on food she would force herself to throw up — from which you can see no way out:
Chicken and egg: which comes first, looking at yourself with burst blood vessels on your eyes and vomit in your hair and having to cut yourself because you're so ugly? Or eating everything in the cupboard to try to hold down how ugly the cutting has made you? It is madness. And if you don't know who you are, or if your real self has drifted away from you with an undertow, madness at least gives you an identity.
But the memoir is far from self-pitying. While there is much heartfelt frankness, the tone throughout is self-deprecating. It helps that she comes from an eccentric Jewish family because the little asides she shares, particularly about her slightly barmy father, are endearing and very witty. Her ability to see the funny side of things makes the book an entertaining read. For example, here's a couple of sentences — out of many — that made me giggle:
I hate it when Beyoncé wins a Grammy and in her speech thanks God. He didn't have time to help out in Darfur but he made sure you won an MTV Moonman.
There are witty lines like this peppered throughout the narrative.
And there's something quite optimistic about Your Voice in My Head because it is ultimately a tribute to a doctor who helped a patient find herself. In many ways it is ironic that just when Emma begins her romance with GH and discovers true love for the first time, Dr R dies and she is unable to share her happiness with him. That the romance ultimately fails only serves to make Emma stronger and more able to cope with the unpredictability of life.
Dr R and GH were, to me, two sides of a coin. They made me feel so good. They made me feel I was a good person. They saw something else. They saw me.
Your Voice in My Head is an articulate, wise, funny and sad read. It is about to be made into a film and latest reports are touting Emma Watson, from the Harry Potter films, as the lead. But I can't help but wonder whether GH will play himself...?
You can read an extract of the memoir on the Guardian website.