Book Review: The Skeleton Cupboard by Dr Tanya Byron
I was very fortunate to be sent a copy of The Skeleton Cupboard to review for Mumsnet Book Club.
This book is strange… It’s not fiction, but it’s not fact either. It’s written in the first person, as the story of Byron’s training as a clinical psychologist. Each chapter tells the story of one of her six placements during that training: a GP’s office, a hospital referral unit, a children’s unit, a drug dependency unit, a geriatric unit, an eating disorder unit.
In each chapter we see Byron learning on the job and making mistakes as she goes. She has a difficult relationship with the supervisor who will ultimately make the decision as to whether she qualifies, and it’s refreshing to see someone in Byron’s position openly admitting to feeling lost, often on the back foot, unsure of herself. She trained in the early ’90s, and it’s reassuring to see that the calm, confident professor we see on TV shows today started out just as unsure of things as anyone else might in her situation.
Byron goes to great lengths to make sure the reader knows that she has broken no professional confidences in this book. Although she has experienced the situations she writes about, the characters are just that: characters. This is really hard to remember, as she has written them perfectly. In many cases it’s heartbreaking to think that although the characters are made up, their situations and their pain are probably not; they’re probably happening to people all over the place, right now.
Like all great books, this one doesn’t just tell a story; it makes you think. What happens when a Holocaust survivor has dementia and is returned to that worst possible time in their lives? What would make a 12 year old girl want to hang herself?
Byron puts a lot of herself into this book; she’s not afraid to admit her own lack of experience or knowledge, her own struggles as she trained. As well as meeting the (fictional) people Byron treats, we also see what she’s really like: that she agonises over what to wear to a funeral; she goes out to get drunk and dance away her troubles; she ends conversations with her foot in her mouth, just like the rest of us. In the epilogue she talks about the “prevailing and dangerous belief that there are people who are “mad” and people who aren’t.” I love that she points out that all mental health practitioners are just people, the same as the rest of us; they’re not impervious, they don’t inhabit some space outside of the stresses and strains of daily life.
Despite being “made up,” this is a very honest book. Byron does not always show herself in a glowing light, and I think that makes the book all the more readable. I literally could not put it down and find myself wishing that Byron would write some sort of a sequel.
Note: I was provided with this book in order to review it for Mumsnet, but that was not dependent on my writing a good review. All words and opinions are my own.