Sitting in the middle of my tbr pile was the novel, Writing Therapy, by Tim Atkinson. I knew nothing about it except that it was written by my blogging friend otherwise known as The Dotterel . But the cover has a picture of an old “Imperial Model T” typewriter on it, and I have a thing about old typewriters, so I found myself first picking up the book, looking at it, turning it over and then without realizing it, starting to read. And then I couldn’t stop. This is a novel the likes of which I haven’t seen in a very long time. It is a story with real characters, written in beautiful prose, full of important ideas, but also structurally interesting. It is self-referential in a way that you don’t see these days. With each page I got more and more absorbed and delighted, and felt like I had to tell all of you about it.

Frances Nolan (or is she Sophie Western?) suffers from a literary delusion: she believes she is the central character in a novel she is writing. Within the walls of the adolescent psychiatric clinic where she has been admitted to help her recover from her depression and violence, she throws herself into a new style of treatment called Writing Therapy which she pursues even against doctor’s orders. Can writing cure a teenage girl whose problem has been too much reading? As she experiments with different narratives the true nature of her problem becomes clear. She is caught within a struggle for control of her own life and destiny as expressed through the writing of her own life story. The novel itself, the one written by Atkinson, weaves in and out of the novel being written by Frances. As a writer, this is no mean feat, but Atkinson handles it so adroitly that the reader never stumbles. The voices of all the characters are so clear that you always know where you are and who you are with. As time goes by and Frances heads towards her own “cure,” you become caught up in the struggles not only of the other patients, but also of the adults who are there supposedly to help cure them.

It’s not often that I finish a book and sit there saying to myself, “where did this come from?” But I did with Writing Therapy, and thanks to the wonders of blogland, I was able to contact the author himself and ask him. Here is a man writing convincingly in the voice of a teenage girl locked within the prison of a soon-to-become obsolete psychiatric unit. How did he do it? And why?

“I was keen to do something to raise awareness of teenage mental-health, having worked (though not in such a hospital) with troubled teenagers for years,” Atkinson explained. “I’ve visited such places in the course of my career as a teacher (with responsibility for pupil welfare) and attended many, many case conferences. So I had a pretty good idea of what the mental-health professionals would be like. As for the patients, more and more of the pupils who came my way each year were suffering in some way: school refusing, eating disorders, self-harm and worse. Not only was I shocked by the rise but I was also concerned by the continued stigma. What schools (and other kids) often don’t see is the happy ending to such stories. I’m fortunate to have kept in touch with a few of the ‘successes’ and in some ways Writing Therapy is a testament to them. But there are also those for whom the system doesn’t work, and some of my royalties are going to the charity, Young Minds . Finally, I suppose (like many people) I had always wanted to write a book. But at the same time I didn’t want to write a book like all the others. (You must know that feeling?) And the more I looked into the craft of writing, the more the workings of the writer seemed to flow into the novel, which seemed appropriate.”

To me, both as a writer and a reader, this was fascinating stuff. At one point Frances/Sophie explains the nugget of the issue to her nurse, Will, and she says it better than I could:

“I mean that no one knows what’s really real now, do they? No one knows which bits are fact and which are fiction any more. No one knows what I’m reporting or inventing.”

Writing Therapy is about a person creating a personalty, a child creating their adult self, a writer creating a work of fiction, a character creating a future. It is simply wonderful and you can buy it here .