Title: The Storm at the Door
Author: Stefan Merrill Block
Publisher: Faber and Faber UK
Genre: Literary Fiction
Stefan Merrill Block’s, “The Storm at the Door” speaks of illness, mental illness at that. He combines his family facts and fiction to give readers a book that sometimes makes you stop in your tracks and think about it. The Storm at the Door is astonishingly original and quite compelling. Block has taken his maternal grandparents’ lives and blended fact with fiction – often reading as prose and then memoir and then fact. To be able to combine all elements in one book is not only a marvellous feat but also requires a lot of thinking and some good writing skills.
The Storm at the Door metaphorically speaks of a storm at a couple’s door – the one that isn’t easy to tackle – mental illness, which spreads across the family’s three generations. The book is about Frederick and Katharine, their love affair, their marriage and relationship over years that lasts, despite Frederick’s mental illness and infidelity. The book further speaks of Frederick’s stay at the Mayflower Institute, loosely based on the famous McClean Hospital in Boston which housed several celebrities and is known to be the highly innovative and one of the best asylums in America.
Block brings a chunk of his family, the missing page so to say to life in this book. It is not easy for a writer to recount his family’s history and document it – more so as a work of fiction. What I loved was the dense and quite often painful picture of the asylum Block paints as it was in the 60’s. To write about being mad and its effects on one’s wife and family is not an easy thing to do.
The pace is slow at times but the writing is lyrical and every word seems to be in its place. There is wonderful representation of a fragment of reality and to write an entire book on it is commendable. Stefan’s prose is sharp, at times biting, empathetic and realistic at most times. It does not become sentimental. It depicts both the sides of the story – that of Frederick’s and then of Katharine’s and then of course of the metaphorical storm. At times the novel is in-your-face and bitter and at others it is a depiction of a marriage gone wrong and what it takes to get it back on track. I enjoyed the book a lot. Of all the books I have read this month, this one is on top of the list.