Stefan Merrill Block’s ‘The Story of Forgetting’ is one of my all-time favourite novels. It’s a delicate and touching story of the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s, that also contains the beautiful motif of an evolving fantasy story. Reading new books by favourite authors always sets the spine tingling, but I often find that underneath my excitement is a tinge of dread; what if I don’t like it? At first with ‘The Storm at the Door’, I thought my fears may be realised; I did not find it an easily accessible novel. On finishing, I was relieved. Whilst this book won’t break into my best 10 books of all time list, once again Block has shown himself to be a masterful storyteller.
‘Storm at the Door’ is semi-biographical. Much like he used his family’s history of early onset dementia as the basis for ‘The Story of Forgetting’, Block draws inspiration for ‘Storm at the Door’ from his maternal grandparents’ struggles against manic depression. The novel is mostly told through two viewpoints. Frederick, Block’s grandfather and Katharine, his grandmother. The chapters that follow Frederick detail his manias, the troubles they cause and predominantly, his miserable existence inside one of America’s premier mental asylums. Katherine’s chapters detail how she struggled to cope with being married to Frederick and the guilt that consumed her after he had been committed. Block also shows, with great tenderness, how his grandmother struggled to find her own identity after her own personality had been overwhelmed by motherhood and the overwhelming shadow of her husband’s illness.
Much of the book details the appalling conditions inside the Mayflower Home, highlighting the perils of institutionalised care for the mentally ill. Comparisons are inevitable with ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. Both books contain a host of memorable and misunderstood characters gripped by mental disorders, both question how you determine the border between sanity and insanity, and both books contain characters that are at best misguided in their attempts to help their patients and at worst feel the need to inflict misery on their defenceless charges. Whilst both books are similar, Block’s is not in the same league as Ken Kesey’s masterpiece.
I struggled with the book at first. Block’s use of language is artful, but it failed to draw me in. I couldn’t identify any overarching narrative; there were lots of (well-drawn) vignettes of life with mental illness, but little to draw them together. Gradually though, I began to warm to Block’s characters, in particular Frederick, who Block paints with warmth and tenderness. When Frederick mistakenly stumbles across a secret kept by the warden of Mayflower House, his situation becomes precarious in the extreme. At this point humanity of the novel bursts through.
The last hundred pages of ‘The Storm at the Door’ are fiction at its best. The events that transpire at Mayflower House prove the fulcrum for change for many of the novel’s characters. As he did in ‘How to Forget’ Block handles an emotive subject with rare delicacy, and when the author himself appears in the novel, it reaches a whole new level of poignancy. Block’s characterisation is very good, and it is impossible not to feel deeply moved by the novel’s events. The quality of the last chapters of the book, make it a thoroughly worthwhile read. Once again, Block has written about a terrible illness that affects thousands of people with great sensitivity. Highly Recommended.