Friday, February 15, 2013

Straightjacket, by Meredith Towbin

Caleb is convinced he is an angel, sent into the world to rescue Anna, an 18 year old girl who has suffered abuse at the hands of her parents.  The pair meet in a mental hospital, where the doctors and staff chalk Caleb's heavenly beliefs up to delusion.  He slips into periods of deep catatonia during which he meets his guide, Sam, in heaven.  Anna is touched by Caleb's tender, artistic nature, and slowly begins to believe he actually is an angel, sent to change her life, and not merely the troubled young man the doctors claim he is.  What if she is wrong?

This book had a truly mystical feeling about it, one which drew me in from the very beginning.  From the moment we are first introduced to Caleb as a character, it is implied that he is an angel, and he has times where his spirit transcends Earth to Heaven, leaving his physical body trapped in a somewhat frozen state, much to the dismay of those in his presence.  We get two views of Caleb, his own and Anna's.  Similarly we learn of Anna from both her own view and Caleb's, though Anna has up a lot of protective walls as a result of the abuse she has suffered.  These dual views of both main characters allow them to be richly developed; we see their flaws and their emotional depth.  Both characters are strong, but of the two, I found myself much more drawn to Caleb.

I like that the writing leaves much open to reader interpretation.  Is Caleb really an angel, or merely a disturbed teenager?  Does he have views of heaven, or just powerful delusions and hallucinations?  The book really made me reflect.  As someone who worked in the mental health system, I strongly believe that treatment for mental illness can allow individuals to live happier, healthier lives.  However, many are quick to diagnose anyone who is a little different (creative, artistic, free spirited) as mentally ill, and I wonder if this is accurate.  Consider the lives of the saints, and mystics from all the major religions in the world.  Often they went into fugue-like states, but instead of calling it mental illness, we called it religious ecstasy.  Instead of a curse, it was a blessing.  Were these same saints and mystics to come into the world today (or prophets, sages, and philosophers) would they be put in mental hospitals and filled with drugs?

The enigmatic nature of the writing intentionally draws the reader deeper and deeper into the story.  I became incredibly invested in Caleb and Anna's story, and found myself rooting for their success.  I wanted Caleb to be an angel.  I wanted Anna to get rescued.  The story seemed mythological in a way, prophetic even.  I am a person who believes angels come in many forms, and often walk among us unknown.  The story is dreamy, and romantic, but also incredibly thought provoking.  While this is a young adult book, it has mass appeal for adult readers as well, particularly fans of paranormal romance and mystical stories.  As a debut novel, this is simply stunning and gorgeous.  I am excited to see what this author will continue to bring to the table.

I received a review copy courtesy of the author and publisher in exchange for my honest review.

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