I am kind of mad at myself for never having had come across some mention of what a great macabre writer Shirley Jackson is, especially because English Literature was my major in college and I am a big horror fan. So anyway, I found out about her in a book celebrating women who aren’t applauded enough and decided to buy one of her novels. Honestly, “The Haunting of Hill House” would have been the first choice (it’s been made into the popular horror Netflix series) , but it’s a lot more expensive than other Jackson titles, so I bought ‘The Bird’s Nest’ instead.
First published in 1954, ‘The Bird’s Nest’ is about a young woman called Elizabeth, who suffers from MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) and a doctor tries to help her out. Wish I had read this classic while still in my teens and maybe it would’ve impressed me a lot. Instead, it was Sidney Sheldon’s “Tell Me Your Dreams” that blew me away as a teen reader, for until then, I had no clue what MPD was. Jackson’s book came out almost half a century ago and although it is quite interesting initially, it leaves you wanting more.
The protagonist Elizabeth is an asocial young woman who holds a mundane clerical job and lives with her aunt Morgan. When she starts suffering crippling headaches and begins to act unusually, her aunt makes her see a doctor, who in turn refers her to a psychiatrist called Dr Wright. Slowly, the reader gets to meet her multiple personalities, while the doctor tries to help integrate them all into one individual. The story is told from different point of views (POV) and the one from Dr Wright’s POV was dry, dull and sometimes quite irritating. It felt like Wright treats Elizabeth’s case more like a pet project than a serious patient. Sure, as a modern reader, one has to understand that this book was written at a time when there was very little awareness about mental health issues, but one wishes Elizabeth was treated with more tact.
Apart from the fact that Wright doesn’t treat Elizabeth’s case with more seriousness than it needs, even the plot wasn’t very strong. A lot of things that happen to her seem a little contrived, for example the way she is treated by absolute strangers. Also, the descriptions get too long and tedious towards the second half of the novel. And Elizabeth’s eventual conflict with her aunt was quite trivial and annoying. Shirley Jackson definitely pushed the envelope for her time, but a little more imagination and research could’ve made this novel so much more ground-breaking.
Having read enough books dealing with mental health issues, “The Bird’s Nest” pales out in comparison. The protagonist’s problems are tame and we never really uncover if there is more to her childhood trauma than she sparingly reveals. As a reader you keep expecting more, but a climactic event never really takes place. At the end I was confused, even imagining a much more complex interpretation to the last chapter than the author meant, but it just didn’t fit. If you haven’t read any novel about MPD, this one makes for a decent pick. It’s a 3/5 from me.
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