Carla is a compulsive, unrelenting novel in which Mark Barry gives a human face to mental illness. It is the story of John Dexter, a 42 year old man with a personality disorder so extreme he is unable to live independently. Most of his adult life has been spent in prison, mental health facilities or being financially supported by his wealthy father.
However, the novel is about so much more than that and I suspect that every reader probably takes away something different after reading it. In the novel, John describes one of his fellow patients, a woman with a seriously disfigured face, and reflects how when people look into it it’s like a mirror, revealing more about them than the woman herself and I dare say the same might be said of John. For me, it’s a novel about redemption and a man being finally able to accept who he is.
Mark Barry is more than a weaver of stories; he is a master craftsman who makes brave choices not only with his subject matter but in his choice of language and the way he plays with our expectations of style and form. From the outset the tone is chatty and light, in direct contrast with John’s thoughts and feelings. Barry ensures that we connect with John, creating a dialogue between us that then challenges us to distance ourselves from him as he reveals the full extent of his ‘madness’.
As John’s tale unfolds, Barry never lets us forget who is in charge as he drip feeds us John’s back story, playfully switching between narrative and exposition. We are given glimpses of John’s past with references to explosive episodes and their consequences so that, even when he tries to show restraint in difficult situations, we are primed and ready when he eventually loses it in a spectacularly dramatic fashion.
John’s disorder is one where he develops obsessive feelings towards women and we get to witness his torment in his relationship with Carla. Carla is a woman young enough to be his daughter, who evokes a protective instinct in John that proves to be his salvation. His need to protect someone becomes greater than his need for affirmation and love.
John’s relationship with Carla is not his whole story; it’s simply a slice of a life that has been defined by unhappiness and pain. It is, for John, however, a life changing period and possibly the most precious time of his life – “A life in just over ten weeks.” Regardless of the outcome of the novel (which I won’t reveal) John’s story is never going to be a happy one. Barry foreshadows the tragedy that John carries around with him by recurrent references to suicide. For example, John has spent each morning and evening since the age of 15 contemplating ways to commit suicide. For me, one of the most poignant lines in the novel comes when John asks us, “Can you imagine a life where you never wake up feeling well?”
Carla is not an easy read but it is an important one and it forces us to face the reality of mental illness. Barry takes us on a tour of the mental health system with its reliance on drugs, talk therapy and the more invasive ECT whilst tenderly offering us a glimpse of characters like Leroy, a murderer for whom there is no chance of rehabilitation. Barry gives us no answers but, by giving us John, he invites us to acknowledge that maybe, given the right set of circumstances, we are all just one step away from madness.
As John loses his heart to Carla, he cautions us to fear for her safety but, ironically it is John himself who garners our sympathy. A man who, as a little boy, was left so traumatised by his mother’s abandonment of him and his subsequent brutal experience of public school, his personality fractured in a way that he can never recover from. It is John’s self-awareness that is his saviour. It allows us to forgive him all his failings and allows him to finally accept himself for who he is.
Carla is a novel that will leave you feeling battered and bruised but ultimately in a better place for having read it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.