Bethany Ruth Anderson Swings and Roundabouts (Bamboccioni Books, 2013)
by Karyn Dougan
New Scottish author Bethany Ruth Anderson has teamed-up with new Scottish-based publisher Bamboccioni Books to publish her debut novel, Swings and Roundabouts. Think John Green, but grittier.
Set in Edinburgh, Swings and Roundabouts follows two young people, Matt and Sarah, as they meet and fall in love. But this is no ordinary boy-meets-girl, star-crossed lovers tale: he is a manic-depressive; she is a body dysmorphic. Their relationship is not threatened by feuding families, but by their own personal demons. They cling to each other, using love to keep the world and their own discontent at bay. Inevitably, things threaten to fall apart as they begin to realise love may not be enough to help them survive.
Swings and Roundabouts is a raw and honest portrayal of mental health and the effect it can have on our relationships. The first few chapters feel perhaps a little self-conscious, although the prose quickly grows more confident. The narrative split and fantastic use of third and first person works particularly well when portraying each illness. Sarah’s first person gives the readers insight to the full effect of her crippling insecurities that – as with many mental illnesses – would otherwise not necessarily be apparent on the outside. Meanwhile, Matt’s third person gives the distance necessary to emphasise just how far beyond help he actually is. Though perhaps in need of a slight technical polish, Swings and Roundabouts benefits from Anderson’s careful attention to detail.
In tackling the stereotypes behind mental illness, Anderson manages to create two characters that are very familiar. Sarah’s careful ritual of getting ready to go out, and her insecurity in simple acts such as walking down the street are described perfectly, to the point where we as readers may feel uncomfortable, recognising ourselves. In the same way, it is an accurate portrayal of that danger all relationships face, not just those who suffer from mental health – when you believe that love really is all you need. It is fun to watch Matt and Sarah fall in love, but it becomes clear just how much these characters need help and not just each other. What starts off as a shoulder to cry on turns into each other’s therapy – something neither is really able to provide.
The result is two people the readers are rooting for, despite the growing odds against their relationship surviving. It captures the sweetness of first love beautifully, but is equally convincing describing Matt’s frightening self-harm: the particularly unsettling chapter detailing Sarah’s experience with anorexia internet sites is just as disturbing. Anderson does not shy away from these difficult scenes but rather confronts them directly. This novel is not afraid or ashamed to explore the realities of mental illness, which is undoubtedly to the book’s credit, and there is also an undercurrent of gentle humour and tenderness that gives the novel moments of lightness and offers some sort of hope.
It is an ambitious first novel but Anderson’s success is due to her unflinching writing and sharp characterisation. Swings and Roundabouts is a devastating and fearless story about two broken people trying to fit together, told with an incredible sensitivity and compassion that will no doubt leave the reader with a tear or two.