July 15, 2020

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Mental illness, art woven through dreamlike debut

Writing about other art forms in literature (visual art, music, film) is tricky. Other media rely on completely different sensory experiences to evoke emotions in their audiences, experiences that literature can only hint at through description.

Through an impressive combination of different literary genres, Winnipeg poet and debut novelist Mariianne Mays Wiebe navigates through the experience of art as a lived experience through the multi-generational story of trauma and mental illness in her novel Kate Wake.

Using the fictional town of Blue Hills and the Blue Hills Mental Health Centre (a stand-in for the historical Brandon Mental Health Centre) as a point of focus, the novel explores the intertwining lives of Katie, a struggling artist who has recently undergone some form of mental health treatment, and her great-grandmother Kate Wake, a once-famous singer, and then painter, who died as a patient at the Blue Hills Mental Health Centre.

There is little historical evidence of her great-grandmother’s existence, despite her celebrity, and Katie becomes fascinated and deeply drawn into her story.

The narrative is intensely interior, never veering far from inner monologues and stream-of-consciousness imagery and descriptions of dreams. Switching between Kate Wake, Katie, snippets of poetry and even a film treatment, the novel pushes against a traditional narrative form, relying much more on the emotion and feeling of described experiences, rather than moving scenes forward to serve a plot.

As well as using many forms and genres of literature, the novel draws heavily on other art forms such as painting and music. There are many references to specific painters and paintings, composers and musical pieces, particularly in the sections devoted to Kate Wake’s experience as she participates in the great artistic movements of the early 20th century. This may pose a problem for some readers, especially if they are unfamiliar with the artists and pieces mentioned and even more so if they aren’t particularly fans of the period.

There are long sections devoted to name-dropping artists and particular works, exploring the characters’ absolute awe of the art. These sections can feel largely academic, which makes perfect sense as the acknowledgements for the novel reveal that it began as a creative dissertation. While the novel is still engrossing and the interior lives of the characters compelling, there are sections that suffer from an apparent need to show the research and historical work behind the inspiration.

The novel is at its best and most harrowing when discussing the history of mental health facilities in the early 20th century and Kate Wake’s experience within one. These scenes serve as brutal and terrifying emotional touchstones for Katie’s experience through mental turmoil. Katie’s experience is not the same, but the return to Kate Wake’s past evokes a powerful sense of dread and fear, crystallizing an experience of something that is still somewhat taboo in our current moment: mental illness.

The novel draws on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which involves Orpheus delving into the Underworld to retrieve his lover, Eurydice, and being allowed to bring her back to the world of the living as long as he doesn’t look back to make sure that she is following him. A similarly cruel demand is placed on Lot’s wife, for those more versed in Old Testament stories.

It is this concept of looking back as a kind of doom that Kate Wake is most interested in, and that Wiebe explores deftly through Katie’s compulsion to not only look back into the life of her great-grandmother, but also to look back at her own life and traumas.

The emotional core of this novel is strong and there is a compelling exploration of mental illness and its fraught history — a history that is continually explored and revisited through art.

Keith Cadieux is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

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