Don’t let the title of Katharine Noel’s debut scare you. “Halfway House” does deal with the issue of mental illness in a no-holds-barred manner. But it’s also a compassionate and compelling look at how a family copes when one member slides into a cycle of manic depression.
Pieter and Jordana Voorster have always been proud of their daughter, Angie. Now a senior in high school, she’s an all-star swimmer, a good student and a dutiful daughter to her parents. But one day there’s a frightening incident at a swim meet, and from then on nothing in the Voorster household is ever the same.
In the years that follow, Angie moves from hospitals to halfway houses, back home and then on to college. Her illness recurs, and the rotation begins once again.
Noel’s depiction of Angie’s depression is frightening in its accuracy. She captures the exhilarating ecstasy of mania and the unspeakable paralysis of the emotional sinkhole that follows it. This is an author who understands that whether it’s called manic depression or bipolar disorder, the illness is fickle and tough to manage.
As Angie battles not only her disease but a loss of self-worth, her family members manage in different ways. Pieter, a professional musician, retreats into his music and frustrating memories of life before his daughter’s break. “All he ever wanted was a life that had coherence and a little grace,” Noel writes.
Angie’s mother begins an affair with a younger man, more out of anger and a sense of loss than any real affection or lust. Jordana is the lone Voorster who acknowledges her sadness and fear, but only to herself.
“She could be knocked off balance at any moment. It could be something obvious, like Angie crying, or it could be something more oblique, like a girl begging change downtown. … It was as though, between happiness and unhappiness, she’d discovered a trapdoor she’d never known was there, one she couldn’t close.”
Surprisingly, it’s Angie’s younger brother and only sibling, Luke, who best weathers the change in the family dynamics. He moves from a sullen, resentful teenager at the time of Angie’s diagnosis to becoming her most patient and fierce champion.
Free from the more complex parent-child connection, Luke’s alliance with his sister is genuine in its regard for her well-being and the acknowledgment that Angie will never be the same.
But this understanding comes at a price. As he moves on to college and falls in love with Wendy, a quiet, self-possessed young woman the emotional opposite of his sister, Luke risks sacrificing one relationship for the other. Caught between what he wants to do and what he feels is his duty, he risks a life in no-man’s land where hard decisions are ignored or put off until tomorrow.
In the end, it’s Angie who saves herself. Her journey through the capricious minefield of her illness is heartbreaking and frustrating for both reader and character. Noel doesn’t sugarcoat her story but neither does she paint a portrait of defeat and never-ending sadness.
Some of the book’s best moments come when Angie manages to conquer her illness and startle her family out of their tendencies to handle her like cut glass. At the end of one hospital stay, the three of them nervously arrive to take her home.
Angie re-emerged from her room and Luke jumped forward to take her bag. As he took it, he pretended the weight was making him stagger. ‘What’s in here?’
‘I’m smuggling out another patient.’”
It’s this nod to Angie’s dogged humor and self-acceptance that allows Noel’s debut to rise above the “poor, poor, pitiful me” brand of mental health novels. She doesn’t shy away from the facts but instead weaves them into a story that is enjoyable and triumphant.
By ELLISON G. WEIST