*I received a free ARC of this book with thanks to the author and Hodder & Stoughton. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: 1939. Seventeen-year-old Nora Jennings has spent her life secure in the certainty of a bright, happy future – until one night of passion has more catastrophic consequences than she ever could have anticipated. Labelled a moral defective and sectioned under the Mental Deficiency Act, she is forced to endure years of unspeakable cruelty at the hands of those who are supposed to care for her.
1981. When psychiatrist Janet Humphreys comes across Nora, heavily institutionalised and still living in the hospital more than forty years after her incarceration, she knows that she must be the one to help Nora rediscover what it is to live. But as she works to help Nora overcome her past, Janet realises she must finally face her own.
Based on a true story, The Girl Behind the Gates is the raw, heart-breaking yet ultimately uplifting tale of a young woman cut down in her prime, and of the woman who finally brings her back to life, perfect for fans of The Girl in the Letter and Philomena.
The Girl Behind the Gates is a harrowing fictional account, based on a true story, of an innocent, privileged young girl who finds herself ripped from her family home and incarcerated in a mental institution for the crimes of pregnancy out of wedlock, attempted abortion and attempted suicide.
Completely isolated from everything and everyone she has ever known and loved; tortured, abused and beaten down by the system she finds herself in and the malicious or well-meaning individuals who work there, this story is a testament to the miracle of human endurance – body and spirit. It is a story of Nora’s survival through more than 40 years of inhumane treatment, and her journey is painful to read.
The story splits into two distinct narratives: before the advent of Dr Janet Humphreys, and after her involvement in Nora’s case. This creates a little unevenness in terms of pacing and tone, as while it is wonderfully uplifting to read about recovery and rehabilitation, it feels a little sedate and anti-climactic after reading the initial 40+ years worth of violence, loss, humiliation and subjugation. Of course, there needed to be hope and light at the end of all of that darkness, but the switch to Janet’s perspective for these chapters felt like it was taking us away from Nora’s story, just as things began to improve for her.
One of the most striking aspects of the book for me, was the revelation that every individual has their own form of damage or ‘baggage’, and it can just be the luck of the draw as to how we are treated by others, or by society, but we can choose for ourselves how we respond to the challenges we face. I know with certainty that I would not have mustered even half as much tenacity and grace as Nora, and remain in awe of her resilience in the face of such overwhelming adversity. It is still shocking to me now, that these, or similar, events happened, and not just to one isolated individual but to generations of women and men who fell foul of society’s mores and paid a cruel price for it.
This is a heartbreaking story of human cruelty and human spirit, and I cannot imagine reading it without a box of tissues (or two) on standby.
Despite his diminutive stature, Dr Mason seems to fill the whole room. He gives a stiff little bow, clears his throat, stands with his feet apart and his arm held slightly in front of him, his chin raised a little. Nora can’t help but think of the bad actor in the performance of The Taming of the Shrew she saw last summer and, despite the situation, feels a bizarre urge to laugh.
‘Mr and Mrs Jennings, I offer you my sympathy in this matter. First, I should make you aware of the legal issues, then I will be willing to answer your questions and make provisions.’
Make provisions? Nora reaches for her mother’s hand but is arrested by a single look from her father, and places it back in her lap. ‘The Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 categorises four types of mentally disabled people. The only one I need bother you with here is that of the moral imbecile’.
– Brenda Davies, The Girl Behind the Gates
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The Girl Behind the Gates is available on Amazon right now!