R90. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman

Year Published: 1930
Pages: 125

First Sentence: There were two voices that were louder than the others.

I discovered the existence of The Shutter of Snow in a list of books at the back of Point Counter Point. I was searching for potential books by women to read for this project. Considering all the talk these days and efforts to draw attention to the issue of postpartum depression, I'm a bit surprised it's not better known.

Emily Holmes Coleman, mainly a poet, wrote her only novel about a woman, Marthe Gail, experiencing postpartum psychosis. Her delusion is that she is God. Unlike the unnamed narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper," Marthe has been committed to a mental hospital rather than isolation. The book chronicles her experience in the different wards of the hospital, interacting with the nurses and other patients. Coleman based the book on her own postpartum stay in a mental hospital. 

Once again, I don't know if I would've enjoyed this book if it were longer, but as it was I thought it was excellent. The author's poetic credentials shine through in powerful, bizarre imagery and evocative passages in which Marthe describes the sensations she's experiencing. The narration is all from her perspective but fluctuates somewhat between the first and third person, with all kinds of liberties taken with the punctuation, giving the prose a dreamlike quality. Every page is covered in beautiful, surprising sentences.

Much of the plot needs to be read between the lines. I don't think it's ever explicitly stated, but it seemed clear to me that Marthe is upper middle class at least, and that this impacts her treatment. The way her husband, who visits her faithfully, feels about all of this is also never explicitly stated but can be discerned through a close reading.  

As I mentioned before, part of Marthe's psychosis is a God delusion, which is more or less prominent as the book goes on. I found it interesting how seldom she thinks of her baby. A lot of her illness "simply" manifests as a loss of inhibition, in which she behaves in ways that are harmless but "inappropriate" for a woman of her class in the 1930s.

I'm having trouble thinking of what else to write about this book. It's good. It's about a woman going through something tough, something she probably had no reason to expect, and doing her best to survive intact. Almost all of the action takes place inside the hospital, leaving the reader mostly ignorant about what Marthe will be going home to and how different it might be from the home she left.

Since I brought it up, I should also add that postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis are two different things. Both require compassion and understanding but postpartum psychosis is a serious mental health emergency requiring immediate help.

Honestly although mental health issues interest me, I haven't read many books about the topic, so I can't really situate this one among things like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Girl, Interrupted, and the ever-growing list of contemporary memoirs and novels about people dealing with mental illness. However, based on its own merits I do recommend giving this book a read.
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Alone in her room at night she stood and pressed her face against the window. It was the end of March and had turned cold again. And all the thumbs of ice began to whirl in shaking circles, keeping with the wind. I shall have snow on my glassy fingers she said, and a shutter of snow on my grave tonight.
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