HALFWAY HOUSE by Katherine Noel


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A New Hampshire family is transformed by mental illness in Noel’s first novel.

Angie Voorster is a straight-A student and a star athlete; at 17, she can take her pick of Ivy League schools. After a manic outburst at a swim meet, though, her future takes on a different trajectory. Angie’s mental illness doesn’t destroy her family, but it puts excessive pressure on it. Noel is very good with the everyday and particularly sensitive to the material world. The semi-functional appliances in the Voorster home—the CD player that needs to be propped up on one side with magazines, the refrigerator with the useless thermostat—speak eloquently of the family’s semi-functional state. Phenomena as quotidian as a corrugated cardboard box or the smell of cold, wet earth become powerful conduits for emotion and memory. These moments give the narrative texture, and they allow the author to reveal her characters’ inner lives and histories at a measured pace. Just as the Voorsters adapt themselves to the strange, new Angie, the universe of the everyday also shifts to accommodate her illness. As Angie moves through hospitals and outpatient centers, the author depicts places where madness is contained with rules and bureaucracy. Noel’s representation of mental illness is sympathetic, but never romantic. The sicker Angie becomes, the smaller and more exhausting her world seems, her disease circumscribing her relatives’ lives. Noel’s handling of mental illness is compassionate and clear-eyed, but her tale is about more than Angie’s disorder. It explores the mystery of family and its inexplicable, irresistible resilience in the face of affliction—whether mental illness, addiction, a disease of the body or some other pathology too subtle and rare to have a name.

Graceful and quietly assured.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-87113-934-0
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2006


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