Richard Derus's Reviews > The Storm at the Door

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block
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Apr 17, 2011

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Read in April, 2011

The Book Report: What happens when a naive young woman meets a tall, dark, and handsome young man on the eve of WWII? He's charming, he's witty, he's intense, and he's going away to war in the Navy. Give up? They get married! When TD&H comes home after only a few months, spends some time in a hospital for the non-physically wounded, and is discharged, the course of the future is set.

The author's maternal grandparents are the protagonists of this novel. He wrote it as a novel, in my opinion, because the drama inherent in this tale of madness, manic depression, motherhood, and untimely death demands things that mere reportage can't deliver. I can't imagine how Mr. Block's mother must feel, seeing her parents' hellish agonies spread wide for the world to view. I can't think it was done without at the minimum consulting her. But this act of revelation, this telling of the disintegration of a family, of a man's mind, and of the consequences of naivete, cannot have been easy for the lady to take in, even fictionalized and told through her son's eyes. I don't know if this is a brave book, or merely a sensational appropriation of the pain of the past.

My Review: NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH. The scenes in the fictionalized madhouse outside Boston are extremely hard to read with equanimity. It's not some neo-Victorian hotbed of cruelty; no, it's far worse; it's modern bureaucratized Kafkaesque insensitivity, callousness, and self-aggrandizement causing the final dissolution of a man's mind and spirit. It's horrible, in that sense. The author's rather dead-pan prose makes this quality of coldness so much more vicious than a highly emotive or overblown and descriptive style would have done.

The author's grandfather died many years before he was born. His grandmother, however, lived on to be a burden to her family during her own descent into dementia. Mr. Block deals with every strain of mental disease in this book. It isn't a jolly little bagatelle, but it is quite an accomplishment for someone so obnoxiously young (not even thirty!) to come to grips with so many strands of the pain of the past in this public way. It makes up in courage and rightness for what it lacks in smiling, sunshiney pleasures of reading. It's the kind of book I don't exactly recommend to people, so much as alert them to it and allow them to decide what to do with the knowledge. Don't be fooled. This book will change you, it will challenge you, and it will make your synapses fire in strange and new constellations of emotion and empathy.

You may not like that. Prepare for it. I think you'll be better off for having read the book.
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