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Submitted Literature

Poppy Shakespeare

By Clare Allan


Clare Allan's first novel, "Poppy Shakespeare", received high acclaim and was faithfully transformed into a television drama on Channel 4.  Focusing on a North London Day Hospital, Allan explores with humour, empathy and honesty the reality of mental illness and the idiosyncrasies

Allan explores how the system creates and maintains people in the position of patient.   Dependency of patients also maintained by system.  Construction and narration of self within illness categorisations - how illness defines individuals. There is a lack of diagnosis for N and also Poppy - as well as lack of symptoms (initially) in both - until Poppy begins to burn the skin from her arms after a period receiving ‘care’.

Allan provides an ironic take on social and medical systems (i.e. Mad Money cf DLA) - exposes the idiosyncrasies and paradoxes of such systems, for example in the alphabetising of the patients - A-Z, when discharge occurs, only patient of name with same 1st letter can be admitted. 

The language of novel is gritty, realistic - stands in stark contrast to the at times fantastical, magical realism themes. N’s way of seeing the world is fantastical - this perhaps serves as a counterpoint to potential criticism being levelled at text for stereotypic views of patients (ie Sue the Sticks / Slasher Sue’s DSH, Brian the Butcher’s OCD, Schizo Safid’s psychosis).  Given that the patients are presented to the reader as mediated through N’s perspective, Allan gives them a fantastical, unreal, bizzare sense to them.

This is a very funny novel - yet with very dark and serious undertones. 


Key Themes:

  • Institutional Abuses
  • Obsessions
  • Psychosis
  • Self-Injury
  • Suicidality

Significant Quotes / Pages

91-2 – “There was two different systems now, he said, an American one and one for everyone else.  Then he started to list all the diagnoses, what symptoms you needed definite and what’s like your bonus ball. 

Which was all very well but about as much use as a book to be perfectly honest.  I could of told Poppy simpler myself and a lot more practical, and I would if it weren’t for the fact we weren’t talking.  If you’d got better they kicked you out and if you’d got worse you got sent upstairs, so the thing was to prove you’d stayed the same; but not exactly the same, not stuck, they liked to believe they was making a difference, so what you done was each symptom got better, you found something else got the same amount worse, and the way he made sure at the end, when they send you out and totalled the columns, you made sure you come out balanced.

Most probably I’d changed more than I needed to.  I drawn its out in my head like a table, the same like we done in Life Skills.  And one side I put all of last year’s symptoms and on the other side all of this year’s, and I marked them out of ten how bad they was.  For any symptom I crossed out, I written a new one opposite-and some of the stuff I come up with you’d never believe it!  Then I added all the numbers up and I fiddled them till they balanced, and if that sounds deceitful, you had to be, and besides I was good at it.   I knew how to shake a symptom from one to ten, just like colour by numbers.  And not bragging or nothing but I’ve done it so well they had to invent diagnoses”

176 – “I never told Tony how Poppy wanted to leave.  Most probably I should of done, but I thought if I did, he’d think it was ’cause of my guiding.  And seeing how Poppy was pleased with my guiding, that would have been dishonest.  So what I done was I actually told him how happy she was to be there.  And I said a few other things as well; I can’t remember exactly.  How she had to make out how she wanted to leave, ’cause that was all part of her illness, but she’d been that worried about the assessments and how they was going to kick her out; she’d gone in the toilets at lunch-time and slashed her arms up.  And I said some other stuff as well.  Like I say I can’t remember.  And I felt a bit bad saying it, ’cause it won’t exactly the honest truth, but I reckoned it was lesser of two evils.”



Reference: Clare, Allan. 2006. Poppy Shakespeare. London: Bloomsbury, 2007


- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Tuesday 27th January 2009