I’m increasingly drawn to stories set in the places I know well. There’s something magical about an author’s ability to capture a thought or feeling you associate with a certain park or pub. The idea of your everyday life being understood, or seen, and being replicated on the page is an extraordinary thing.
The Beauty of Broken Things, by Manchester-based writer Catherine North, is both a contemporary love story and an exploration of how mental health influences our lives, work and relationships. The novel centres around two protagonists: Kerry a 40-something frustrated office worker who has recently left an unfulfilling relationship, and Alex, a photographer who used to work with the rich and famous but was forced out of the limelight. Both are middle-aged, unemployed, and struggling with anxiety and depression and they meet as volunteers sorting through second-hand goods in a charity shop in Manchester.
It’s a self-published title and, if I’m honest, they’re something I tend to avoid. The sudden rise in popularity of the Kindle and other e-readers saw a slew of texts available to purchase at the touch of a button and, often, these are rife with spelling mistakes, inconsistencies and naff plot lines. But there was something about North’s novel that spoke to me. Perhaps it’s because it’s set in Manchester? Or maybe the subject matter resonates? Or it could have something to do with the beautiful cover. Whatever it is, North’s book has helped me realise that sometimes we should turn publishing myths on their head – judge that book by its cover and let all preconceived notions of self-published titles go. It was published on World Mental Health Day (October 10) which, considering its subject matter, is a nice touch.
North possesses a real gift for creating a visceral sense of place. I could see, smell and touch some of the locations, not just because they’re as familiar to me as an old friend, but because of the beautiful way North has with words, language and description. Similarly, I could recognise the struggles faced by each of the characters – judgement, unemployment, sadness, unfulfillment, regret, hesitation and loneliness – and the empathy North has for each is powerful. We care about these people not just because they mirror our lives but because the author makes us care through her words. That’s an astonishing trait to have and it’s not one all novelists possess.
However, at times the narrative does feel somewhat artificial, like North is trying to shoe-horn something in to advance the plot or further develop the story of a minor character, and I wasn’t surprised by certain events that unfolded – although I’m reminded by a friend that this is an irritating trait of mine (particularly when it comes to guessing the plots of detective telly shows). North captures the mundane, the everyday, the ordinary folk – working, drinking in the pub, milling around charity shops, sipping wine in the back garden – so brilliantly, and the world she creates is so ordinary, that any sudden advancement in plot seems jarring or unnecessary. But these moments didn’t put me off, not at all, and I read the novel in three days, thoroughly enjoying my time spent with each character.
On her website, North states: “One of the most powerful ways we can help promote understanding of our mental health and that of others is through sharing stories.” I completely agree. Although this is a work of fiction, it’s a tale that resonates with those of us who have struggled with mental health issues and learned not only to see the beauty in broken things – of our perceived flaws and imperfections – but how we can thrive, and see the world differently, because of them.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor