Dad lay down in the bottom of the boat, using one of the life preservers as a pillow. He closed his eyes and spoke to us like he did when he was taking a nap, with no expression on his face. Alright then, he said, imagine something happened and I can’t drive the boat and you can’t start the engine. What do you do now? Alec said, Why can’t you start the boat? And Dad said, Imagine me gone, imagine it’s just the two of you. What do you do?
Imagine Me Gone is the story of a family living with mental illness, first in John, the father, and following his suicide, in his eldest son, Michael. It poses the question: what are we willing to sacrifice for those we love. In many respects, it’s a harrowing read. In the prologue, the reader learns ‘something’s happened’ to Michael while he and his younger brother are staying in a remote cabin, and it doesn’t take long to realise that he’s followed, or at least tried to follow, his father out of the world. Alec’s ominous ‘something’s happened’ casts a shadow over the book; no matter what else happens, the reader is going to end up back in the cabin. But while it’s a story of grief and loss, it’s equally about love and resilience and edged with hope.
Haslett shares the narrative between the five family members: John, the father; Margaret, the mother; and their children, Michael, Celia and Alec. By spreading the narrative between the characters, Haslett reflects the way John and Michael’s mental illness is something that the family experience together. Because the story takes place over several decades, following Michael from boyhood through to his mid-thirties, the reader also sees how the family dynamic changes over time, and how the family cope with John’s death and Michael’s illness.
Imagine Me Gone also looks at the broader issue of how patients with mental illness are treated in the United States. Michael is prescribed Klonopin as a college student and over the next fifteen-odd years is prescribed numerous other medications, but the dosage is never quite right. He’s only intermittently able to afford regular therapy, and his medical bills put his family in significant debt. It’s telling that the second half of the prologue, which Michael narrates, describes him trying to reach his psychiatrist in a time of need and getting his voice mail.
Michael is obsessed with the idea of transgenerational haunting. He studies how this phenomenon manifests in various forms, researching African American boys who have nightmares of travelling aboard slave ships and how such ‘hauntings’ are often triggered by music. And, of course, he too is haunted by his father’s illness and death, a haunting intensified by the fact that he is at school in England, away from his family, when his father dies in the States:
I had left them [his family] there to suffer and now he was gone. The one sequence. Like a groove on a record cut too deep for the needle to climb out of. No matter what else is playing, this is always playing. That is the point of volume—to play something louder than this groove. The volume of speakers, or of obsession. A dose sufficient to the task.
Imagine Me Gone is a bittersweet read. It’s well-written, and the characters and their relationships feel genuine and authentic. There are beautiful, warm moments, as when Alec meets his first long-term boyfriend, and I loved Michael. He’s smart and witty, easily the most sympathetic character in the book. Even at his sickest, he maintains a sense of objectivity and humour. Michael’s sections of the narrative primarily comprise his entries on medical forms. He ignores the prompts to check boxes and offer succinct answers and instead provides a rich personal history to show that his experiences doesn’t fit neatly within the categories his doctors would place him in and also that he is far more aware of what’s going on around him than his family would believe.
But it’s not an easy read. Michael is obsessive and anxious. Reading his sections, I could feel my muscles tensing and that awful, tell-tale tightness in my chest. The plot is slow and subtle. There’s a sense that the family is holding its breath, gathering small frustrations, resentments, triumphs and hope as the years roll on. So while I could appreciate Haslett’s technical skill and the analytical part of my brain was thinking: this is a most excellent literary novel, my emotional self found it somewhat taxing.
I’ll be totally honest: Imagine Me Gone wasn’t quite my cup of tea. But I feel that’s more a matter of personal taste than any shortcoming on Haslett’s part. I got the impression that readers who enjoyed novels such as Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, would also warm to this one.
Thank you to Little Brown for providing a copy of Imagine Me Gone in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up two critical issues and fifteen advanced issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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