28 April 2015

Mosquitoland by David Arnold

David Arnold’s MOSQUITOLAND had been on my radar for quite a while, even more so after the great review it got in EW. There’ve been a lot of books this year (or at least, I’ve been finding more of them) examining mental illness, or at least integrating mental illness into the characters as relevant—but not overwhelming—parts of their makeup.

Mim (Mary to her mother) might or might not have a mental illness: depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, we’re never quite sure, and neither is Mim. Her father is convinced she’s at risk, and so he searched out a doctor who would prescribe Mim medication she didn’t want for a problem she wasn’t sure she had. There’s an undercurrent of uncertainty throughout the entire novel: does Mim have a problem? If she does have one, then the bigger question is, does she have a handle on it?

Mim’s possible problems aren’t the heart of MOSQUITOLAND, though. After Mim’s father moved her and her new stepmother from Ohio to Mississippi, Mim’s been unhappy, but when she overhears that her Mom is fighting some sort of illness—one she’s never been told about—she sets off to visit her mother.

By bus.

I’ve never been on a Greyhound bus, but David Arnold paints the most vivid picture of travel I’ve read in quite a while. The strange characters Mim meets, from the delightful grande dame carrying a mysterious wooden box to deliver to her nephew, to a creep in a poncho, to Carl, the extremely capable bus driver, were all vividly drawn, often in just a few, cutting observations by Mim.

Like all great journeys, Mim’s takes frequent unexpected turns. She leaves the bus and ends up semi-stranded in Independence, Kentucky, where she meets and befriends Walt, an abandoned boy who has Down Syndrome, and Beck, who she’s instantly smitten with. With the aid of a crappy pickup truck, their journey toward Cleveland continues.

MOSQUITOLAND surprised and challenged me. Mim was such a bombastic narrator—unpredictable, moving swiftly from heartbroken to furious at the world, and I couldn’t always follow her mood changes. But I never wanted to stop reading. She was utterly compelling.

Mim wasn’t always certain how reliable her own senses were. Some of the novel’s best twists revolved around Mim’s uncertainty. And the ending got my heart lodged in my throat.

It’s been great to see so many novels focusing on mental illness. MOSQUITOLAND joins Jasmine Warga’s MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES, which I finished in March, and Jenniver Niven’s ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES (which read after MOSQUITOLAND). I wish these books had been around when I was a teenager; I’m glad they’re around now.