I’d like to express what a wonderful impression the new novel Magnified World by Grace O’Connell has made on me. I’ve admired Grace O’Connell’s writing since we attended Queen’s University together; her poems and stories often appeared in campus publications, and I was a fan. The girl can write.
This new novel captures the isolation and busyness of mental illness. Maggie, a twenty-three-year-old living in Toronto, has recently lost her mother, who committed suicide by drowning. Maggie is left trying to make sense of her mother’s life, about which she knows very little, and of the import of her mother’s mental illness on her own life—Maggie has begun having blackouts. She writes about her memories of her mother in an attempt to gain clarity. But soon, a suspicious stranger called Gil turns up at the family New Age shop where Maggie works, saying he is writing a book and needs information from Maggie about her mother. Maggie develops a codependent relationship with Gil that seems both necessary and unsafe. There is something they each want from one another, but there are risks.
Though whimsical, the book is true to life in the way it tackles mental illness, from the protagonist’s feelings of being stuck, to her father’s and friends’ visible helplessness as they witness her descent into an unclassifiable psychosis that confounds even her psychiatrists. Mental illness is always unique and a separator. Maggie observes, “Something was different here than in other houses…but I didn’t know what exactly. It was something to protect, to gather around in the way a pearl gathers around a grain of sand. It was an answer to a question that hadn’t been asked.” O’Connell writes beautifully about the process of loss, the paradoxical comfort and dangerous meaningfulness of delusion, and the futility and wisdom of prophecy, the skill (or trick) Maggie’s mother passed on to her and which she has honed mostly through memorization. Science, the sublime, and superstition overlap, layers for the reader to peel apart.
Maggie finds herself in increasingly dicey situations, and no one seems to be able to help her, though Gil insists he has the answer to her blackout problem. Even a rehabilitation centre for individuals experiencing grief can’t contain her. Maggie needs a miracle. What is the miracle that takes place? Perhaps it’s the very experience, however difficult and lonely, that Maggie needs to learn who she is, who her mother was, and how to transcend her losses.
I am so taken with Magnified World. This is a book for those interested in mental illness, or for lovers of Toronto or of great writing. (And may I recommend Florence and the Machine’s Ceremonials as a companion soundtrack? Relevant themes: water, ghosts, insanity, transcendence, and salvation. Pockets full of stones.)