by Erin Rose
When I first laid eyes on Brain on Fire I was wandering around an airport, I cannot recall which one now, as it seems the last year of my life has been nothing but in and out of airports. Anyway, I was perusing the bookstore, as I always do, and fantasizing about two things: 1. Seeing my own book on the shelf one day and 2. Having enough time in my life to read all the books that I wanted to. Then I saw Brain on Fire and my own self-indulgent daydream came to a ferocious stop. I have to admit that as a product of my generation I am insanely biased by good marketing and packaging. This book stood out because of its colouring, half black- grey and half yellow and its fresh typeface. But most of all I was taken by the woman on the cover staring back at me with somewhat vacant yet frenzied eyes. I knew without opening a page that I had to find out what was happening beyond that cover. And even though I could hardly afford a cup of coffee on my grad student budget, I bought the book and began reading it on the plane.
It is hard to write this review without telling you what happens in this book so I will do my best to paint a vague notion of the premise and let you in on my fascination with it not only as a story but also as a text type (the genre and creation and all that fun stuff, fun to me at least.) Brain on Fire is a nonfiction autobiographical novel- research- memoir type of book. See how hard that was? It is the story of Susannah Cahalan and her “month of madness.” She recreates for readers the period leading up to, during, and following her hospitalization, in a seamless and often poetic narrative. The incredible part is that she has no memory whatsoever of her month in hospital.
The text is woven together by interviews, hospital videotapes, medical records, a journal her parents kept during their visits, and a notebook that she herself began keeping. It is without a doubt one of the most incredible feats of nonfiction I have ever seen. It is a miracle of a story and a miracle of a book.
As I read this book I felt as though my own identity and my own realities were up for questioning. How real is what we believe to be real and how close are we from another version of ourselves? I have on a regular basis said, oh I’m crazy, or this is crazy, or even who am I? But these are figures of speech.
What if suddenly they weren’t? What if my vibrant, healthy, mostly normal self suddenly and truly started to fray around the edges? What then?
Brain On Fire is an exploration in craft, a story of a young woman’s survival and it will call to question everything you think know about love, faith, identity and memory. It is a #1 New York Times Best Seller and the winner of Books For A Better Life First Book Award. It is beautifully written, meticulously crafted, and at times, haunting. I cannot recommend this book enough.
“From here on, I remember only very few bits and pieces, mostly hallucinatory, from the time in the hospital. Unlike before, there are now no glimmers of the reliable “I,” the Susannah I had been for the previous twenty-four years. Though I had been gradually loosing more and more of myself over the past few weeks, the break between my consciousness and my physical body was now finally complete. In essence, I was gone.”
Find out more about Susannah here.
Purchase Brain on Fire here.
Erin Rose is a writer who loves black cats, country music and a well made manhattan. She resides across the seas, currently landlocked in Boise, Idaho where she is working toward her MFA in Fiction at Boise State University. Erin is a journalist, blogger, lyricist, and most recently a humbled short story writer. She aspires to visit every continent, fall in love, publish a novel, attend the running of the bulls, learn how to make a well made manhattan, and graduate. You can follow all her words and adventures at roseblacque.com.