Published by Inkwater Press on Jun. 2013
Following a failed suicide attempt, Oliver is admitted to Airhaven Behavioral Health Center, a therapy-focused facility for the mentally ill. He is unable to cope with the traumatic deaths of his wife and young son, for which he blames himself. Although he does not believe he deserves to live while they are dead, he forms a connection with a fellow patient named Penelope.
Penelope is in her late 20s and was diagnosed with schizophrenia two years earlier. Since developing this condition, she has faced major changes to her personality and rejection by her friends, who can no longer relate to her. Only her fiance, William, has stood by her as she has changed from an intelligent, vibrant young woman to a withdrawn person with strange ideas, such as her beliefs that Eleanor Roosevelt speaks to her and controls her actions and that creatures called “Kerffies” have a language of colors.
Oliver sees the way everyone — even the other patients — shuns Penelope and understands how badly she needs a friend. The two patients form a bond as Penelope tries to convince Oliver that he is not responsible for his family’s death and Oliver tries to help Penelope realize that she is worth loving. Both characters struggle from very serious emotional trauma and instability, but they try to help each other heal and give each other reasons to live.
I really enjoyed reading Leave of Absence. Peterson has a background in counseling, and it definitely shows in her empathetic portrayal of grief and mental illness. There are so many stereotypes associated with schizophrenia that are inaccurate for most people who suffer from it, and Peterson does a fantastic job of portraying the human side of this illness. For example, William’s friend Rod assumes Penelope is unpredictable, violent, and paranoid, although we can see clearly from her narration that she is none of those things. She is scared, sad, and deeply caring. Reading about her mental degradation and struggles with her self-worth was really affecting, and this book made me want to be more empathetic toward people suffering from mental illness.
I also really liked the way Peterson depicts Oliver’s grief and lets his story unfold. When the story begins, we know that his wife and son are dead and that he feels responsible, but we do not know how they died. Oliver is completely uncommunicative and refuses to speak about his feelings. It’s not until he is ready to talk about what happened that we learn the truth. I thought it was fitting that the reader doesn’t learn what happened until Oliver is able to verbalize it.
I would have liked to see more backstory about Oliver and Penelope; their struggles in the behavioral health center are vivid, but I wanted to know more about what they were like before their troubles began. Oliver has flashbacks to life with his wife and son, and William conveys that Penelope used to be lively and work in advertising, but I think learning more about their personalities and day-to-day life before everything changed would have helped me relate to them.
I have an attraction to mental illness stories (see my love affair with The Bell Jar), and I would recommend this book to other people who are interested in this topic. Leave of Absence is a compassionate depiction of grief and schizophrenia that conveys how important love and support are for people who are suffering.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.