Strange Heaven by Lynn Coady

“It seemed as if things were happening without much reason or point. There were no warning bells going off anywhere to announce: This is going to happen. And once things did happen, there was no discernible aftermath. ”

Bridget’s mother phoned with lists of people who had died and at the end of the summer, Archie Shearer killed Jennifer MacDonnell. “Bridget’s mother called her up and told her that.” Then they talked about it for a few minutes and “moved on to Bridget’s bowel movements and what had she heard from the social workers. And by the time Bridget hung up, she recognized that she had forgotten all about Archie Shearer and Jennifer MacDonnell during the last part of the conversation even though they were her neighbours and close to her in age. It still was like a thing on a screen. Now that it happened and she knew of it, it didn’t concern her any more. That was what other people’s dying meant.”

Bridget is seventeen and she has gone to Halifax to have a baby which was adopted and then Strange Heavenshe was moved to a psych ward of a children`s hospital. Her companions on the psych ward include Mona from Toronto, Kelly and Maria the anorexics, Byron who sits cross-legged and howls like a hound, Shane who worried about drugs in the ventilation system and Jimmy who played with Lego blocks plus Gabby the nurse and Babs the social worker. The news from home (Cape Breton) passes in and out of her awareness and gets mixed together with what preoccupies her in the hospital. She is on medication but doesn’t know what it is or what it is meant to do for her. Her friends from home and her graduating class – Heidi, Chantal, Mark, Daniel, Stephen – also join the mix made up of her reflections as does Alan Voorland from Guelph.

Her memories, including those of her parents (Robert and Joan) and her Uncle Albert and his wife, Margaret P. and Rollie, Robert’s handicapped brother, are also included in  this  ”strange heaven”, the milieu in which Bridget is immersed and through which she wades resolutely as she tries to make some meaning of the lot in life she seems to have been given thus far.

Bridget’s friend Alan Voorland “was able to take her out on day passes because he qualified as an adult. He was one. He pulled into Tim Horton’s first and said they were going to have dinner there. It was a joke, and funny because they always used to drive to the Tim Horton’s in Antigonish in order to get away from town. They would joke about having driven an hour just to sit and smoke and drink coffee.”

“Alan always spoke as if he were reading the news. “Here I am with my funny friend Bridget Murphy,” he said in the restaurant he took her to after the joke about Tim’s. “Out on a day pass from the psychiatric wards. Yes indeed. She is somewhat gaunt in appearance but seems in good health overall.”

“When she first met him, this way of speaking had made her feel special.” Alan described Antigonish as “a wonderful place, a fascinating people with a thriving unique culture. And yet there is a sadness. A hopelessness about it all. The dependence on welfare, unemployment insurance. The Bottle.”

“It was impossible not to feel special. It was also impossible not to feel a little dumb. For the first time she experienced herself and her surroundings as something other than commonplace. For Alan they were positively alien. He wanted to hear stories about Bridget’s Gramma.”

Alan “was as interesting to her as she was to him because he talked more, even when sober, than any man she knew. He talked just for the sake of talking, using words that weren’t even necessary to get the meaning across.” Their friendship “was such that they told stories about themselves to one another. It took Bridget awhile to get the hang of this, and so in the beginning Alan did most of it. He told her about his intelligent and interesting friends and all the quirky, whimisical adventures they had together. ” He had a notebook full of character sketches and he would read to her. He said it was the little things that fascinated him. “Like me,” Bridget said. Wittily, she thought.” When he took her out on a day pass he got her to tell him the story of her time in the hospital and so the reader learns more that way of Bridget’s journey. “She related all this to Alan as amusingly as she could.” Alan listened for his own amusement but in doing so he acted as Bridget’s therapist and he trained her to be an observer of her life in a sense.

Bridget’s experience with her actual therapist is different and she tells Dr. Solomon that if “somebody were listening to me, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d probably start lying to them” and then she laughed. What she remembered mostly about the birth was guilt. “She felt bad. She was in a room with two adults asking her questions. She had done something wrong.   She was seventeen years old. She had been bleeding into a nice, thick hospital napkin which had to be changed every hour….Blood had to be the guiltiest thing there was. It came out and it kept coming. It was like The Birth. “I”m sorry,” were the first words she had to say after that. And that’s what her body had said too, and was still saying.”

“It seemed like, even if you didn’t want it to, or even if you paid no attention to it whatsoever, life, existence, whatever it was, carried on and it carried you with it. Like your body, it was indifferent to you. That’s what Bridget thought. Her body was part of life and life was life and always took you along for the ride and you never had any say.” In the author’s words a little further on : “she had gone from adult status, in giving birth, to that of a child, in being depressed. It was all as arbitrary as the days were long.” A clear message about how society was/is treating young women in Bridget’s position?New Waterford Girl

This book reminds me so much of the movie New Waterford Girl in which you can find all the characters that appear in Strange Heaven. The movie does not include a hospital or a pyschiatric facility but there is little doubt that the main character would admit to feeling like she was in such a facility much of the time! The book expands upon the pregnancy experience more than the movie but the issues are covered in both media. They are a complementary pair in the best sense (the movie was released in 1999 and the book was nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 1998).