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Falling in Love with Carla – a Review of Carla by Mark Barry

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This is my first ever review of a novel, so a bit nerve-wracking.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Recently released from a mental hospital, John Dexter moves to a quiet Peak District town where he lives a solitary life on an income his father provides. His story, both moving and human, is one that remains with me now. John suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, which negatively affects his relationships with women, and is unable to form any kind of romantic attachment without it turning into obsession. He spends most days drinking and friendless, until he meets Carla who he instantly falls in love with.

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking you’ve been here before… Is there any point in reading on?

Believe me, there is.

What I didn’t expect when I read Carla was how much I would like John. Though why wouldn’t I? He’s an intelligent man, who’s disarmingly honest about his condition. His light, conversational tone is a great foil for the story he tells us: one of tragedy, dark obsessions, personal hatred and violence. It draws you in, informing us about his condition and his attraction to Carla. He also tells us that eventually it all went ‘very, very wrong’. From the very beginning he hides nothing, disclosing everything with beguiling candour and humour. As a reader, you are prepared for the worst, holding on tightly during the entire uncomfortable journey. Yet despite the horror of all he divulges, he is extremely affable and as readers, we continue to want the best possible outcome.

Over the course of two-hundred pages we experience everything John does – his inner battle to control his urges, his knowledge that his thoughts and actions are at odds with his need to be an ordinary person, and his justifiable fears that eventually he will ruin everything during his quest to woo his love. He is a very sympathetic character. Despite his mental illness, he has the same needs and desires as anyone else; he wants to live freely and love freely, and as readers, we can appreciate and identify with this. We can also understand some of his impulses and obsessions – we all go a little mad when we are gripped by love.

Whilst reading Carla, my mind was transported to other fictional characters with whom mental illness was a major theme. In my own personal comparison, John came out favourably. He was certainly more accessible and empathetic than Salinger’s disillusioned teenager Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. He was also more aware of his own motivations. Jed Parry in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, who has De Clerembault’s Syndrome, is completely delusional, and his blind persistence as he doggedly stalks his victims alienates the reader. At times I felt similar fears and frustrations when reading John’s internal monologue. However, despite this, he has many redeeming features and remains sympathetic throughout. Finally, I was reminded of Glenn Close’s character in the film Fatal Attraction. John as an obsessive is far more considered, complex and well-rounded. His thoughts are often irrational and destructive, but he is far from one-dimensional. Barry characterises his protagonist in a rich and multi-faceted way; his compulsions are not purely reactive and hysterical as demonstrated by the Alex Forrest role.

Despite the ‘very, very wrong’ outcome of John and Carla’s romance, the journey there isn’t what I expected. In writing this story, Barry poses the question: given the right circumstances, can someone with such ingrained impulses and urges evolve into a better person? The story is essentially one about self-discovery; trying to step away from a given path when everything around you is signposting disaster. John is certainly open to learning about himself, and from the point at which he meets Carla, he continually attempts to develop and improve. And as Carla responds to her admirer favourably, we see him through her eyes as well as his own. However, as readers, we are almost in a state of suspended animation, as we wait for him to be ‘found out’. Just as John himself – bloated with self-loathing – also waits.

Though I think this is a marvellous book – a deceptively easy read that broaches a range of themes on the nature of love and mental illness; asking where obsession stops and love begins – there are a few issues that meant I could only give it four out of five stars. Firstly, on rare occasions, I found the dialogue didactic and clunky – especially at one point, when John and Carla discuss environmental issues. Secondly, though John is well-developed, some of the other characters feel less authentic (Carla, particularly, seems like she’s been dropped into the novel from another century. John is such a strongly drawn character, I want to see in her what he sees.) Thirdly, though I really appreciate delving into the darkest recesses of John’s mind, his life, and experiences at the psychiatric hospital, there are times when his narrative is a little repetitive. Nevertheless, the descriptions are brilliantly painted, and only enhance the complexities of John’s personality and experiences. Having said that, during a concluding scene at Carla’s childhood home, the author seems to gallop through events. It was such a defining moment in the tale, I wished the author had slowed his pace. Yes, it is an action scene, but the language doesn’t hesitate on any particular image and therefore feels rushed. Finally, there is an episode in the book where John dresses up as a woman to anonymously appear at an environmental event that Carla organises. No-one realises he is a man, though as he is six foot four, this doesn’t ring true.

This is a beautifully written book, where the descriptive passages are sheer poetry, and Barry’s ability to allow us into the mind of a complexly tortured individual is genius. We see the darkness and madness of a tormented mind, but above everything, we see a human being. As individuals, we would never want someone like John to be part of our lives, yet through the course of this book, the reader becomes his friend. We can understand why his family continue to stand by and support him. We want to put an arm around him and lead him onto a different path – all the time knowing that this isn’t possible. He is a victim to himself, and nothing can save him from that – only himself.

(This review can also be found on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Carla-Mark-Barry/dp/1492159441/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 and Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18619851-carla).

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