Poppy Shakespeare by Clare AllanPoppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan

Poppy Shakespeare

byClare Allan

Paperback | April 24, 2007

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Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize

Poppy Shakespeare is wholly unique — both an insider’s look at the madness of the mental health system and an outsider’s discovery of the power of an unlikely friendship, it signals the arrival of an extraordinary new voice on the international literary scene.

Who is mad? Who is sane? Who decides?

Welcome to the Dorothy Fish, a day hospital in North London. N has been a patient here for thirteen years. Day after day she sits smoking in the common room, swapping medication and comparing MAD money rates. Like all the patients at the Dorothy Fish, N’s chief ambition is never to get discharged. Each year, when her annual assessment comes round, she is relieved to learn that she hasn’t got any better.

Then in walks Poppy Shakespeare in her six-inch skirt and twelve-inch heels. She is certain she isn’t mentally ill and desperate to return to her life outside. Though baffled by Poppy’s attitude, N agrees to help. Together they plot to gain Poppy’s freedom. But in a world where everything’s upside-down, are they crazy enough to upset the system?

Funny, brilliant, and moving, Poppy Shakespeare looks at madness from the inside, questioning our mental health system and the borders we place between sanity and insanity. Written in high-voltage prose, original and troubling, it is a stunning debut.

Excerpt from Poppy Shakespeare:

‘It’s not that I’ve got a problem with mental illness,’ Poppy said. ‘It’s just there’s nothing the matter with me. Do you know what I’m saying?’

‘I wouldn’t worry bout that,’ I said. ‘They must think you’s mad or you wouldn’t be here. Candid Headphones don’t reckon she’s mad. Never stopped her,’ I said. . . .

‘Poppy?’ I said, cause I got to say it. Be like watching a blind man walk under a bus. ‘You know what you said bout not thinking you’s mad?’

‘Yes,’ she said, like what of it?

‘Well I wouldn’t say nothing to them about that,’ I told her. ‘Not at the moment. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I ain’t saying nothing. It’s just the doctors, you never know. They might decide to pick up on it. I mean, it’s up to you, do you know what I’m saying, but maybe if you stick to your other symptoms.’

From the Hardcover edition.
Clare Allan lives in London. This is her first novel.From the Hardcover edition.
Title:Poppy ShakespeareFormat:PaperbackDimensions:352 pages, 7.94 × 5.03 × 0.97 inPublished:April 24, 2007Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385662157

ISBN - 13:9780385662154

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Rated 2 out of 5 by from This book had an interesting premise and grabbing beginning, but as I continued it was hard to tell where it was going. I couldn't tell whether it takes place in our "normal world" or somewhere more...alternate universey or paranormal. This ambiguousness could be seen as a good thing, but it just left me confused. The narration is confusing, which might be due to me not understanding the colloquial terms used, but I also just didn't get a very good sense of the girl's character through her narration style. Admittedly I did not finish it, but I have no strong desire to at this point.
Date published: 2014-01-23

Read from the Book

1. How it all begun I'm not being funny, but you can't blame me for what happened. All I done was try and help Poppy out. Same as I would of anyone, ain't my fault is it, do you know what I'm saying, not making like Mother Teresa, but that's how I am. It weren't like you realised anyway, not at the time, not that first Monday morning. It weren't like you seen it all then and there when Poppy come stropping in them doors with her six-inch skirt and her twelve-inch heels; it weren't like you seen it all laid out, the whole fucking shit of the next six months, like a trailer, do you know what I'm saying, the whole fucking shit of the rest of our lives, which the way I'm feeling, do you know what I'm saying, most probably come down to the same. Poppy Shakespeare, that was her name. She got long shiny hair like an advert. `Shakespeare?' I said when Tony told me. `Fuckin'ell bet she's smart.' Tony smiled at the carpet, like this flicker of a smile, like a lighter running low on fluid. `So what am I s'posed to show her?' I said. `I don't know nothing, do I,' I said. `Just show her around the place,' he said. `Introduce her to people, that sort of thing.' `Nah,' I said and I shaken my head. `Ain't up to it, Tony. Sorry; I'm not. Does my head in, that sort of thing. What you asking me for?' I said. But Jesus, if you'd of heard him go on! Weren't nobody else would do, he said. Weren't nobody else in the world, he said, not Astrid Arsewipe -- couldn't argue with that -- not Middle-Class Michael, not no one at all, alive or dead or both or neither, known as much about dribbling as I did. 2. How Tony Balaclava got a point Fact is I been dribbling since before I was even born. My mum was a dribbler and her mum as well, 'cept she never seen her hardly, grown up in a home while they scooped out bits of her mother's brain, like a tater, taken the bad bits out, till she never even knew she got a daughter no more and all she could do was dribble and shit, and one time I seen her, went with my mum, and it done my head in a bit to be honest, all humps and hollows and whispy white hair but afterwards Mum said what the fuck. `Come on, N,' she said, `let's what the fuck!' and we gone to this massive like stately home except it weren't it was a hotel, but that's what you'd think, you'd think, Brideshead Refuckingvisited, which my mum loved that programme, give her ideas, and she gets us this room like the size of a church, starts ordering salmon and champagne and shit and dancing around in her underwear, which I don't know why she was down to that but she was, I remember it certain. And then I remember the knock at the door, she was twirling her tights round her head at the time, and policemen and handcuffs and, `You come with me, love. Your mum will be fine; she's just not very well.' Like news to me, do you know what I'm saying, and I give her `Fuck off!' and wriggled her arm off my shoulders. When Mum weren't twirling her tights round her head, she was hanging off bridges and slashing her arms and swallowing pills by the bottle and shit, till one Tuesday evening 6.15, Mill Hill East station, not that it matters, she jumped in front of a train and that was the end of it. When I weren't living with Mum I got fostered out, or I stayed down Sunshine House which was better 'cause none of the staff give a fuck, and you done what you wanted. Back then we was into sniffing glue and the longer you sniffed, like the harder you was, and this one time it's me against Nasser the Nose and everyone's cheering, do you know what I'm saying, and the next thing I know I come round six months later playing pool on the caged-in balcony of this unit for fucked-up kids. After that it was like I never looked back. By thirteen I been diagnosed with everything in the book. They had to start making up new disorders, just to have me covered, then three days before I turned seventeen, they shipped me up to the Abaddon to start my first six-month section. Don't get me wrong. I ain't after the sympathy vote. The only reason I'm telling you this is just to prove how for once in his life Tony weren't talking out of his arse; he got a point and a fair enough point and in the end I had to admit, weren't no one better qualified to show Poppy round than me. 3. A bit about the Dorothy Fish and the Abaddon and stuff like that you can skip if you been there already At the time all this happened I was going to the Dorothy Fish, which in case you don't know is a day hospital, and in case you don't know what one of them is, it's this place where you go there every day and when it shuts at half-four you go back down the hill to your flat on the Darkwoods Estate. Most probably you's wanting the history as well, like why did they call it the Dorothy Fish, but I ain't going into none of that on account of I don't know. Middle-Class Michael said they called it after this lady or something, `The widow of Thompson Fish,' he said, `the haulage man,' like you ought to know, who give all her money to dribblers when she fallen out with her daughter. Rosetta said she'd heard they'd called it after this nurse, like a tribute. But Astrid said bollocks to both of them. Everyone knew Dot Fish, she said, she was manageress down the Kwik Kleen launderette, got stabbed to death and stuffed in the spin drier when a customer mistaken her for a tiger. Sue thought it must be an anagram and she used to get Verna to try and crack it, but they never got further than `history' and some shit that didn't work out.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. There are moments when N describes aspects of her world in terms that verge on the surreal: Abbadon Tower is described as being “so tall you couldn’t even make out the top of it. It gone up so high you couldn’t see the windows and it kept going up until all you could see was this fiant red line disappearing into the clouds.” And after her first meeting with Poppy, N says: “I gone back to the common room, I gathered Poppy’s butts up. And they filled my backpack right to the top and the pockets too and the pack was so heavy I couldn’t hardly walk.” What do you think the author’s intention is when using this technique?2. How would you describe Poppy’s and N’s relationship? Is it equal? Does it change over the course of the novel? If so, what causes this?3. Does N change over the course of the novel? If so, in what ways, and why?4. How would you describe the various attitudes and assumptions that the long term patients of the Dorothy Fish (N herself; Middle-class Michael; Rosetta, for example) hold about “the outside world,” the one beyond the Dorothy Fish and their council estate Darkwoods?5. Reviewers have drawn comparisons between Poppy Shakespeare and a number of classic novels, especially One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22, Nineteen Eighty-four and the works of Kafka. What do you think? Did it bring to mind any other novel you have read? Why?6. In chapter 16, Middle-class Michael tells the history of Abbadon, which is in a way also a history of ideas about what a mental health institution should be from the Victorian period to the present. Do you think Michael’s history is essentially correct?7. What do you think about the treatment of mental health patients in “the system”–whether in institutions or not–in our society today? If you can, be specific about your own community, or province. Are you optimistic about the direction we seem to be taking?8. What do N’s feelings about Poppy’s daughter Saffra tell us about N?9. The Dorothy Fish day patients number 25, one for each letter of the alphabet (except for X, at the moment). What do you think the author is suggesting with this premise? How would you describe the route by which patients usually arrive at the Dorothy Fish (or at least as they perceive it), and that by which Poppy arrives (or, again, as she perceives it)?10. Did reading Poppy Shakespeare change the way you think about mental illness, or about what it means to be, or not to be, “sane”?11. Do you think N believes that “dribblers” and “flops” are born or made? Why? And what do you think?12. Discuss the statement “Mental illness is a survival strategy.”

Editorial Reviews

A GLOBE & MAIL BEST BOOK OF 2006“Allan casually yet boldly manages to bring the reader into N’s chaotic and feudal world. . . . Poppy Shakespeare is not only the careful telling of an unbelievable tale, but also a provoking examination of our health systems and the ethos of psychiatric facilities. . . . For anyone looking for a dynamic summer read with a troubling twist, Poppy Shakespeare is a worthy debut.”–Winnipeg Free Press A “stunning debut novel . . . so alive it practically sparks off the page. Oh, and then there’s the riotous humour. This is a laugh-out-loud kind of book. . . . In a long literary tradition of novels that chronicle “the Mental Patient,” Poppy Shakespeare stands out because its author has brought the madwoman down from the attic, or out of the shadows, and placed her at the centre of her own tale. . . . A rip-roaring good story.”–Globe & Mail“The superlatives are all shabby with overuse. Brilliant and incisive. Stunningly original. Heartbreaking. Something new will have to be minted for Poppy Shakespeare and her author, Clare Allan. . . . [It is] funny and ironic, but it is also a skewering portrait of the mental health system, and not just in Britain. . . . This is a debut novel, but already Allan is a literary force to contend with, one of those rare, oh-too-rare, writers who can make your mind and heart and guts flip in simultaneous somersaults. Don't give this a miss. It's the real thing.”–Merilyn Simonds in The Gazette (Montreal)“Catch-22 meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a North London day hospital — Clare Allan’s Poppy Shakespeare is an electrifying debut, written after 10 years as a psychiatric patient, which bursts on to the page with a wholly original voice: surreal, raucous, infuriating and very funny.”–Guardian (UK)“Allan’s world isn’t quite right in the head, but is as real as a slap in the face. Her prose has an irresistible dark gumption reminiscent of Ali Smith. . . . As Allan . . . reminds us, you don’t have to be sane to see the funny side.”–The Times (UK)“Poppy Shakespeare is a distinctive and powerful debut, full of brave experiments that generate unexpectedly fierce emotional heat. In a literary scene whose established stars milk tragedies such as the Holocaust or 9/11 for precious little reason beyond their own artistic vanity, Allan has given us something indigestibly, potently true.” —Michel Faber, author of The Crimson Petal and the White, in the Guardian (UK)“Poppy Shakespeare has that rare quality: the feel of a book that needed to be written. . . . It is bitterly, brutally funny and extraordinarily moving. . . . The exuberant wit and colourful imagery, and the strangely endearing character of N. herself make Poppy Shakespeare such a pleasure to read.” —The Telegraph (UK)“Here is a serious novel which portrays the mentally ill with both raucous humour and with an empathy altogether lacking in sentimentality. The pitch of the narrative voice is perfect, and the characters, in all their bravado, pathos and absurdity, feel utterly true to life. It is a brave and original piece of work.”–Patrick McGrath, author of Spider and AsylumFrom the Hardcover edition.