Phenomena: The Lost and Forgotten Children tells the true story of Malcolm, a patient at Seacliff Mental Hospital in the early-mid 20th century. It is an extraordinarily sad tale, though not without a hopeful ending, set on the rugged but beautiful South Island coast of New Zealand, just outside of Dunedin. Through Malcolm’s journey, we meet a plethora of Cuckoo’s Nest characters who impact Malcolm in his quest to determine his own level of sanity and either prepare him for a return to society outside the walls of Seacliff or convince him of his need to remain.
In her Afterword for the book, Susan Tarr writes, “I always thought the history about the inside of Seacliff Mental Hospital should not be lost, especially as so many from my own era who lived at Seacliff are now gone.” This is a good place to start for any writer: to tell the stories of those who cannot tell their own.
However, as interested as I was in reading this book, I was also wary of Tarr’s intent. To tell these stories, why not produce an historical non-fiction, freely and clearly describing the background and context behind the lives of these figures? I was wary of an agenda which, when woven into a novel, could potentially detract from the all-important objectivity of the fictional narrative voice.
I needn’t have worried (or warried?). While there were times when I could detect Tarr’s perspective over-riding Malcolm’s, she maintains an objective narrative. Even better, her use of language is superb: lyrical and idiomatically New Zealand. Tarr’s vocabulary, so specific for the region, the people and the unique setting, reads naturally, flowing from the experiences familiar to the author.
It is evident that Tarr’s intent was to tell many different stories of the people of Seacliff. This was admirably done via Malcolm whose interactions prompt the telling of these stories. Through the middle of the book, I did wonder where it was all going and not always in a good way as I found myself content to set the book aside for stretches of time rather than feeling compelled to find out what would happen next. Perhaps it was meant to feel this way – an attempt to help the reader experience the aimlessness of these characters as they languish in Seacliff.
However, in an unusual structure, the pace of the book picks up in the second half as more details of Malcolm’s background are revealed until, finally, two of my favourite themes are addressed: that of the institutionalised facing freedom (think Shawshank Redemption) and that of the beleagured finding his voice – in this case, Malcolm with the assistance of Nurse West.
Overall, Phenomena: The Lost and Forgotten Children accomplishes what it sets out to do: enlighten the reader to shameful treatment of the marginalised of the past and give voice to similar in the present. Better still, Tarr has done this in an imaginative, artistic and poetic manner – an impressive book that should be read by more New Zealanders.
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