In her tour-de-force first novel, Juliann Garey takes us inside the restless mind, ravaged heart, and anguished soul of Greyson Todd, a successful Hollywood studio executive who leaves his wife and young daughter and for a decade travels the world giving free rein to the bipolar disorder he’s been forced to keep hidden for almost 20 years.
The novel intricately weaves together three timelines: the story of Greyson’s travels (Rome, Israel, Santiago, Thailand, Uganda); the progressive unraveling of his own father seen through Greyson’s eyes as a child; and the intimacies and estrangements of his marriage. The entire narrative unfolds in the time it takes him to undergo twelve 30-second electroshock treatments in a New York psychiatric ward.
This is a literary page-turner of the first order, and a brilliant inside look at mental illness.
I was sent this book through NetGalley and, although not something I might have picked out in a shop, I’m really glad I came across it and got the chance to read it as it was an incredibly moving story and extremely well written – honest and sharp to the point that I found it easy to believe it was a memoir by the author and not merely a work of fiction.
Garey has an authoritative and masterful voice whilst narrating as Greyson Todd, a middle aged family man suffering the effects of bi-polar disorder and an ever increasing level of insanity. Near the beginning of the story, Greyson makes the irrevocable and impulsive decision to leave his wife and two daughters, to walk out of his family home and never go back. The rest of the book follows Greyson as he travels the world, each day battling his psychological demons and repressed memories, finally allowing himself to submit to the paranoia and disorder that have threatened his outwardly calm world for more than 20 years. Interspersed with his present day travels are flashbacks to his childhood and his early marriage; threads of his life showing the portrait of a highly disturbed and desperate man.
The book flits between these three time frames in no logical order and with no warning, which matches perfectly the imagined inner workings of Geyson’s mind. As his life spins out out control, so does the fluidity and coherence of his narrative, retaining its frankness and alarming candor but losing all sense of consistency and routine. The narrative really provides an insight into Greyson’s head, and I found myself experiencing the feelings of anxiety, guilt, terror and sadness that engulfed him, albeit in a more diluted and objective way. I really rooted for Greyson as a character and wanted him to beat his demons and save himself, claw himself back from the dangerous descent that began with the exodus from his family and his ‘fake’ life, but at the same time I found it hard to sympathise with him at times, and hard to like him, especially when he occasionally demonstrated a complete numbness or lack of remorse verging on the edge of cruelty.
Because Greyson only developed his disorder in the early stages of his marriage, the book provides evidence of a time when he was a fully functioning ‘normal’ member of society, completely at ease with himself and his reality, which are extremely difficult to read knowing as we do that he eventually ends up leaving all that behind and almost forgetting there ever was a time before his illness. Even so, Garey gives us clues that Greyson maybe wasn’t as stable as he might have thought, through poignant childhood memories that are a little different from what you’d expect a child to think, and comments from friends and family that show they’ve recognized something about Greyson that hints at the unusual. For example, one of my favourite lines in the whole book was spoken by Greyson’s father to his son as a young boy; which was –
“Greyson, you are very lucky. Not everyone can feel things as deeply as you. Most people, their feelings are… bland, tasteless. They’ll never understand what it’s like to read a poem and feel almost like they’re flying, or see a bleeding fish and feel grief that shatters their heart. It’s not a weakness, Grey. It’s what I love about you most.”
From this you get an idea of the beauty and emotion with which Garey writes, and the ideas that go so far beyond the limits of her characters’ own story. Most of what we read is filtered through Greyson’s own perceptions, and is at times painful to absorb – I found myself wanting to step away from his mind for a while at times, and step away from the book; it’s so incredibly intense and not at all what I was expecting. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also brilliant, and moving, and funny, and sad, and absolutely definitely a rewarding read – I learnt so much about the way people’s minds work, and how easily perceptions are altered and changed, sometimes temporarily and sometimes for good. I won’t give away the ending or reveal the outcome of the changes in Greyson’s mind, as if you get that far into the story you’ll want every single surprise and emotion and bit of hope to be felt first hand.
Now on general sale in hardcopy or ebook format, Too Bright To Hear, Too Loud To See is well worth a read if you’ve got the time and dedication to stick with it – it’s not a difficult book, as such, but it will demand your undivided attention and it will make you read just one more page. I’m definitely glad I happened across this book, and highly recommend everyone to give it a go, even if it doesn’t at first appear to be your ‘thing’ – I’ve often found that what turn out to be my most favourite reads ever are the ones that I either pick up on a whim, am given as a present, or read as a ‘last resort’!
Click here to read an interview with Juliann Garey about Too Bright To Hear, Too Loud To See, her family history with mental illness, her relationship with her character Greyson and what finally inspired her to write a novel – as featured on post-gazette.com.