The Storm at the Door, by Stefan Merrill Block

Article published on September 5, 2011.

Whilst this maybe only Stefan Block’s second novel, he has taken a candid yet inspiring decision to create a fictional story using real life family events and memories at its foundation. This provides the setting for a generation spanning engaging account of mental illness and the profound impact on the family.

Block’s grandfather underwent admission to a psychiatric institution in the 1960’s. From this he has creatively used the content of actual letters and photographs from his personal experience and shared memories to colour his story and I suspect to some degree consider in depth and appreciate what it must have been like to live with pronounced mental health issues during this period in time.

The main character Frederick Merrill after a protracted period of increasingly inappropriate, as well as clandestine behaviour is placed in a private mental health hospital, in a remote setting, quite separate from the modern world. His wife Katharine meanwhile tries to hold the fort at home with her two daughters, whilst her parents fund his private health-care and finances begin to dwindle. For quite some time she fails to admit or accept the extent of his mental health problems, citing such as exhaustion and the need to rest. This is in part her own denial, and a resistance to being stigmatised. But in reality to sustain this level of pretence she has become isolated, without any close friendships, which forces her daughters to adopt a learnt behaviour of their own. Always dignified she does eventually concede albeit quite incorrectly that he has experienced a nervous breakdown, but never so far as outwardly accept his diagnosis of manic depression.

Frederick is unwillingly exposed to an institutionalised environment, rich with colourful, highly intellectual and intriguing characters admitted to and working within the the hospital. The nature of this is highly insightful; full of humorous as well as touching moments that create a endearing and entertaining backdrop for the book. Interestingly it also touches on the turning point in modern practices of psychiatric treatments, with the introduction of psychotherapy thereby moving away from patients merely languishing in sanatoriums.

Katharine has for the most part lost her husband, yet both she and Frederick convey a strong attachment and deeper love associated with their earlier courtship and marriage during the 1940’s, upon which neither can give up upon despite the dire situation they find themselves in. Whilst the difficulties and challenges Frederick’s mental health issues has on his family and friends are deep and permanent, this is not a story which dwells on the impact, but with wit and a captivating and engaging writing style, is a blend of humour and strife that carries you enjoyably through to the denouement of the story. The Storm at the Door is an extraordinary enigmatic and cultivated read.

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