Book review: The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

For a species laying careless waste to the planet and appallingly skilled in the messily chaotic art of death, destruction and war, humanity has a prevailing passion for neat and tidy recovery from trauma and grief.

Pop culture celebrates triumphant comebacks from breakdowns and mental setbacks, inspirational speakers spruik the power of tenacity and the ever-upward recover to recovery, and people assure each other, in hushed and hopeful tones that everything will get better in time.

We love ourselves a fairytale return to whatever passes for normalcy, but the reality is, as Caitlin, the protagonist in Ewa Ramsey’s memorably evocative novel The Morbids, knows all too well is far more complicated than that.

For every step forward, assuming they happen at all, there are countless steps stumbled backwards, for every fleeting thought of hope, of nascent happiness, there are crushing burdens of sadness, anxiety and dread, and trying to pretend otherwise is a recipe for ongoing disaster.

Or not so much disaster, as a slow, meandering and prolonged descent in the morass, a place where all thoughts of gloriously moving forward fall prey to a grinding sense that nothing will ever get better.

It’s an exhausting place to live, and if you have ever struggled with mental health issues, the kind that feel like they will never not weight you down to a suffocating, crushing degree, you will find much with which to identity in the brutally honest delights of The Morbids.

“In the year or so I’d been coming, there had been a lot of new faces. Most only came once. They were sent by doctors or shrinks or their local mental health service, but you didn’t need a referral and it was free, right down to the tea and coffee, so occasionally we’d get tourists. Most of them made their way here via Facebook, where a post by a bemused and horrified one-time visitor had gone viral and seen us labelled the Morbids.

Death was huge on Facebook, if you knew where to look.” (P. 50)

Reading about Caitlin’s attempts to forge something resembling a normal life strike home if you have ever come to a place where life just feels like too much.

It certainly does for Caitlin who, post a car accident in which she feels she should have died, is obsessed with the idea that she is a dead woman walking.

She thinks constantly about how she will die, and how it might come to pass, a thousand different Six Feet Under episode-opening scenarios playing constantly in a mind which desperately wants to be normal but which has forgotten how to make that happen.

That is the key thing you must remember about Caitlin and anyone, like this reviewer, who has struggled to make headway against what often seems like an insurmountable wall of mental health issues – normality is what is craved above all else.

It is debatable whether such a thing exists at all, but we want to believe it does, to be the people who happily go to brunch, or watch Netflix or going to Bali for a friend’s wedding – Caitlin’s BFF Lina is getting married to Matt there and Caitlin both wants to go and is terrified of doing so – without giving it a second thought.

We just want to get on a plane or ride in a car or fall into the arms of handsome, caring doctor – Caitlin meets Tom and he’s lovely and she wants the normal he represents but it all feels too far away – and not feel as if we are living some kind of lie or that it is about to end or be taken away from us in the most traumatic of circumstances.

Ewa Ramsey (image courtesy official author site)

It may sound so normal and not a lot to ask but as Caitlin battles to stay afloat in a life that two years down the track from her accident, doesn’t look anything like her old more ambitious, corporate-focused life, it begins to increasingly seem like an impossible dream.

What makes The Morbids such affectingly compelling reason is that Ramsey grounds Caitlin in very real, very human concerns.

Sure she meets a handsome doctor who promises everything she’s ever wanted, but the reality is that no matter how easy and straightforward something looks, it rarely works out that way.

The Morbids works, quite apart from its vivid characters and memorable world building, because Caitlin doesn’t have a magic wand waved over her life and has to fight, with help from close workmate Nic and bestie Lina to claw her way towards whatever form normal can take in her life.

There are funny and awkward moments, and some moments of transcendent romantic warmth and levity, and their welcome inclusion reflects the fact that life is never one hundred percent terrible (it just feels that way), but much of the narrative of this refreshingly honest book is gritty, down-in-the-trenches backwards-and-forwards hard graft, again reflecting that no one’s recovery is every uncomplicated or immediately effective.

“Maybe I wasn’t normal. But maybe normal wasn’t the point, had never been the point. Maybe this was. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be here but I was, and I wanted to be, and that was so much more important. She grinned at me, and I grinned back and my chest nearly exploded. ‘We’re here, Leen,’ I said, ‘ We’re fucking here.” (P. 331)

Proof positive is found in the therapy group Caitlin has been going to for a year or so, a group dedicated to addressing crippling death-obsessed anxiety, the kind that only ever sees the shadows and never the sunshine, and which never lets hope take place in any way, shape or form.

Supposedly there to help people like Caitlin, the group, which is referred as the Morbids (hence, of course, the name of the novel), in many ways shackles her, something that only comes to light when she slowly begins to relinquish her need for carefulness and control and surrenders to the gloriously delightful chaos of an unplanned and unpredictable life.

Is doing that frightening?

Yes, it is, but as Ramsey explores Caitlin’s slow and less-than-smoothly-linear ascent back to something approaching normal – with the caveat that many people with mental health issues are never healed so much as they learn to navigate the complexities and contrariness of their condition – we begin to appreciate the rich rewards that come from forgoing isolation and loneliness and rebuilding connection and intimacy.

The Morbids is a brilliantly affirming read not because everything suddenly ends up happily ever after – quite how it ends feels as groundedly pleasing as the rest of the book – but because at every stage of the story, Caitlin’s life feels messy, real, true in ways that are relatable and inspire the kind of authentic hope that can last more than a nanosecond in the cold and cruel surrounds of the real world.

Coming back from life-changing grief and trauma is never, ever easy but it is possible, just not in the way you may expect, and The Morbids documents that in all its rich, broken, human glory, funny, beautiful, sweet and searing in equal measure, a tale for our times where normal has long ceased to have any real meaning and finding your way back from the abyss is more challenging than ever.

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