The Octopus Man by Jasper Gibson

Review by Anne Goodwin

Tom doesn’t expect life to be easy; it’s more important to follow a true path. Single, jobless and reliant on benefits, he prioritises abstinence, spreading kindness, and devotion to his god. When not praying, visiting his sister or sitting with a cup of hot water in a supermarket cafe with other strays, he roams the Sussex countryside whatever the weather. Although beset by chronic anxiety, he keeps his sense of humour, and his hope.

For twenty years he’s trod the tightrope between sanity and madness, with those who police the boundary as much a hindrance as a help. When the novel opens, Tom is under pressure from both his sister and his care coordinator to participate in a drug trial, for a substance initially developed to treat athlete’s foot. His psychiatrist refuses to prescribe the only medication Tom deems effective but, in the British mental health system, the patient’s assessment of his own well-being is often overruled.

Tom shrugs off the disappointment and travels to London to meet his oldest friend. But too much has changed for both of them since they fought together, took drugs together, and shared a threesome with another friend’s mum. Tom was once a promising law student. Now he can barely hold a conversation.

Fleeing the pub, and his embarrassment, Tom is physically and verbally abused by the octopus god. He knows he needs to eat, but can’t afford London prices. In his confusion, he takes the tube in the wrong direction. The stress triggers a severe psychotic episode and he’s detained under the Mental Health Act. No-one could describe the ward regime as therapeutic, although he does make a friend. And an enemy in an abusive nurse.

Tom gets his discharge by agreeing to take part in the clinical trial, knowing this will be the end either of him or of the octopus god. When the drug silences his spiritual companion, Tom is free to drink alcohol, eat meat, and have sex if he can tolerate the stresses of dating. His care team and his long-suffering sister are delighted. But it seems he’s swapped one form of failure for another. Something feels missing from his life and he’s constantly falling asleep.

Jasper Gibson was inspired to research and write this novel after the death of a family member who had a schizophrenia diagnosis. I can vouch for the authenticity: in my work as a clinical psychologist, I met many people like Tom. They also had a love-hate relationship with voices that would both protect and persecute. They felt a similar ambivalence about their dependence on a service system that defined their cherished beliefs as insane. They experienced the daily humiliation of underperforming, and being patronised by care staff who were younger, and/or less intelligent, than them.

But this is a novel, not a case study. It’s a beautifully written and absorbing story, narrated by an unusual character who is as lyrical communing with nature as he is conversing with his personal god. I strongly recommend it for its compassion and humour, and, most of all, and in every sense, for the voice.

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This review is revised from a version which first appeared on Anne Goodwin’s blog, Annecdotal.

Anne Goodwin writes entertaining fiction about identity, mental health and social justice. Her new novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, is inspired by her previous incarnation as a clinical psychologist in a long-stay psychiatric hospital.

Jasper Gibson The Octopus Man (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021). 978-1474616072, 288pp., hardback.

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