Review of ‘I Never Promised You A Rose Garden’ by Joanne Greenberg

First published in 1964, this book has some themes in common with Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water (1961), Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963). I admire those novels for their writing style and memorable characters, as well as for their explorations of mental illness and their exposures of abusive mental healthcare staff. I feel that Greenberg’s novel is comparatively lacking in terms of good structure and gripping writing style. However, the content is similarly hard-hitting, perhaps the most uncomfortable of all, with its focus on self-harm, anti-Semitism and schizophrenia.

The narrative follows 16-year-old Deborah Blau, who is admitted to a hospital where Dr Fried takes on her case. Together they try to help Deborah conquer her demons, which are literally manifested in a frightening alternative world. We also follow Deborah’s parents and their complex feelings about their daughter’s illness. Dr Fried’s thoughts are occasionally explored too.

I think this book is courageous and uncompromising. It’s very intense, not the kind of book you want to read a lot of in one sitting. The plot wasn’t very clear, which I find is sometimes a failing of autobiographical fiction, but maybe if the author had taken a step back and worked more on constructing the plot, the content might have lost some of its power.

I wouldn’t want to re-read I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, but I think it definitely deserves new readers.

This is a new edition with a foreword by Esmé Weijun Wang and an afterword by the author.

Thank you to the publisher Penguin for the advance copy via NetGalley. The book will be published on 5th May.

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