By: Carolyn Griffith
Hilary T. Smith’s Wild Awake offers sympathetic and (mostly) accurate depictions of teens with bipolar disorder and paranoia. The book is beautifully written (except for a surplus of similes – and they’re excellent similes!), with a powerful controlling metaphor. I do have a few quibbles, but they’re pretty minor.
Seventeen-year-old Kiri Byrd is home alone in Vancouver, practicing for both the International Young Pianists’ Showcase and the Battle of the Bands, while her parents take a six-week summer cruise. “Things get weird” when she receives a phone call from a man who says he has some of her sister Sukey’s belongings – the sister who died five years earlier. Who, it turns out, did not die in a car accident, but was murdered.
As Kiri delves into Sukey’s life and death, and the secrets her parents kept from her, she spins out of control – smoking pot constantly, practicing for days on end with almost no sleep, fizzing with relentless energy. She meets Skunk, a guitarist, who turns out to be in treatment for paranoia.
Depiction of Mental Illness
I’m going to concentrate here on Smith’s description of Kiri’s unraveling into hypomania, which is just shy of a full blown manic attack. I have two first-degree relatives with bipolar disorder, have seen this up close and personal, and have read a lot about it – it’s what drew me to the book in the first place. Smith is also an expert; she has the illness herself and has published a non-fiction book on it called Welcome to the Jungle. (She’s also got a second novel, A Sense of the Infinite.) So she should be, and is, spot on about how Kiri begins to decompensate (yup, that’s the word) in Chapter 16 after staying up all night going through the garbage bag of her sister’s belongings:
“The wired feeling that started when I left my house has grown into a thrumming, crackling, electrical field. I want to kiss Lukas. I want to dance down the street…”
(p. 82, iBooks version)
That fizzy, wired feeling; hypersexuality; relentless energy; not sleeping; overspending; seeing patterns in everyday events – Smith weaves them all in with increasing intensity. In Chapter 21 Kiri walks three hours to get her bicycle because she wants to go for a ride, buying a lot of strange stuff along the way – including, yes, some snacks and beverages, but also an acorn squash,
“henna powder, incense, and temporary tattoos of various Hindu deities.”
By Chapter 26, after several days of sex with Skunk punctuated by minimal and erratic sleep, Kiri wins the first round of Battle of the Bands with her friend Lukas. She
“can’t stop marveling over the coincidences, the way every little thing slid into place. Every disaster, every whim, every seemingly random decision came together to make this night happen. There are no mistakes, I realize – just detours whose significance only become clear when you see the whole picture at once.”
Eventually Kiri reaches the point where she’s practicing nonstop for the Showcase, going days without sleeping. When Skunk is hospitalized for paranoia, she Googles “psychosis” and winds up taking a suicide quiz on a mental health website. It tells her she has an 87 percent chance of committing suicide. (p. 180)
Okay, now for Skunk’s paranoia. I don’t know much about this so I’m going to take it at face value that Smith’s done her research. Skunk’s first major attack of paranoia caused him to melt down on stage during a performance and accidentally hit a bandmate in the head with his guitar. His band was wildly popular and the meltdown, infamous. Now he’s lying low in his aunt and uncle’s basement, fixing bicycles and keeping company with an amazing collection of vintage radios. Only at Kiri’s insistence does he venture back on stage, for the final round of Battle of the Bands (after Lukas ditches out on her). It’s an act of astonishing courage – which Kiri acknowledges.
The other thing I like about Skunk is the way Smith portrays him in comparison to Lukas, whom Kiri was crushing on when the story started. Lukas has a hot body, but that’s about the extent of his charms. Otherwise he doesn’t even notice when she’s lugging armfuls of heavy musical equipment and he’s loaded down with…wait for it…a pair of drumsticks. OTOH, Skunk just keeps stepping up; even when he’s paranoid, he’s worrying about Kiri, not himself. I think it’s great that the crazy guy is a much better human being than the hottie.
Music: The Controlling Metaphor
I just have to call this out because I love it so much. Smith deftly uses Kiri’s piano music to mirror Kiri’s emotional journey. Her parents gave her a grand piano shortly after Sukey’s funeral. Kiri also began studying with an elite piano teacher whose rigorous demands offered the 12-year-old a refuge from the grief and bewilderment her detached parents wouldn’t help her deal with.
Kiri embraces the discipline of the metronome: “As long as I’m sitting at the piano, the entire universe is under my control. Eighty-eight keys, ten fingers.”(p. 66) But hypomanic Kiri can’t be contained by it. She’s “fired” by her teacher and removed from the Showcase. After this phone call, she sees her piano as “a beautiful bomb shelter, a flotation device in an ocean whose depths I was afraid to see.” (p.204)
Kiri plays through her Showcase repertoire one last time, pouring into it her grief for her sister, her fury at her parents, and other repressed emotions. “All this time, I’ve been afraid of the music, and I’m not afraid anymore.” (p. 205)
Continuing with the music metaphor, hypomanic Kiri triumphs at the Battle of the Bands with Skunk, playing the synth-and-bass pieces they’ve composed in just a couple of days.
My two quibbles are with the beginning – or really, with what came before the beginning – and the ending. First, you need to know that not only was Kiri’s older sister murdered – she was a 21-year-old gifted painter, dabbling in drugs or possibly drug addicted, whom her parents had kicked out of the house. (My reading is that Sukey may have also had bipolar disorder and the drugs were self-medication.) Is it really credible that the Parental Byrds would leave another artistically gifted daughter on her own for six weeks before the most stressful event of her life? Mr. and Mrs. Byrd turn obliviousness into an art form, but c’mon.
My issues with the ending have to do with the trajectory of bipolar disorder. A disclaimer: I know something, but I don’t know everything. I’m sure Hilary Smith knows loads more than I do.
Many times, but not always, a manic episode (and while I’ve been saying hypomanic I think we’re pretty much into true mania here, but please correct me if you think I’m wrong) ends in a crash into depression. So I kept waiting for Kiri’s crash. And waiting. Even after Battle of the Bands – when my god ANYBODY would crash – there’s no crash. I found that odd. Now is any harm done by this, if it is indeed inaccurate? If you’re, say, the college roommate of someone with bipolar disorder and you’ve read this and now your roommate flies off the manic cliff and nosedives into the abyss – you might’ve liked to have been forewarned. It would make your friend’s abyss a little less terrifying for you. Not exactly literary malpractice.
Also. The absence of a crash makes the ending somewhat implausible. Kiri’s brother Denny contacts her parents to come home and deal with her. She hasn’t crashed, she’s still flying high – and she’s angry at all three of them. Why would she so calmly accede to their plan for her to go see a shrink and get medicated the next day? And then, in a controlled fashion, on her last night of psychiatric freedom, bicycle downtown for a nice thematic wrap-up?
To be honest, I’m not sure how you would craft a novel around a completely accurate depiction of bipolar disorder. It’s too messy. The trajectory of manic decompensation intertwined with artistic endeavor makes for a nice narrative arc; the crash and/or resistance to treatment, not so much.
In Wild Awake we have Kiri and Skunk, two characters with mental illness who are talented, courageous, engaging young people – and who are not shooting up schools or movie theaters or shopping malls. Yay! For awhile there the bulk of kids’ fiction about mental illness dealt with parents who a) buried a teenaged son alive, b) abandoned a young boy in a tent in a state park, c) burned down the house, d) starved their daughters and beat them with hangers, and e) held a toddler’s hand on a hot stove burner. It’s good to see the literature evolve. I’d recommend this novel to anyone – it’s a great read, and we need more awareness of how people live with various mental illnesses.