rating: 5 of 5 stars
I first fell in love with Clare Dudman’s work upon finding a short story of hers in an anthology. The story was called Eczema. I looked Clare up online and told her how much I liked her story. We exchanged a few emails about it and that was that … until I signed up for Twitter. When creating a Twitter account, Twitter will search through your email account finding addresses of others using Twitter. Turns out that Clare was already there, so I started following her.
We’ve shared quite a number of tweets, including a recipe for meatloaf, and I began reading Clare’s blog, Keeper of the Snails. Somewhere along the line, I started wondering why I hadn’t gotten around to reading any of Clare’s books and decided I needed to rectify that situation. I checked out “98 Reasons for Being” from the library and dove in.
The story takes place in an insane asylum in Frankfurt, Germany, in the 1850s. The superintendent of the asylum is Heinrich Hoffman. Though Clare’s story is fiction, Hoffman was a real person. While his profession was psychiatry, he is best known for his children’s book, “Stuwwelpeter,” or “Shockheaded Peter.”
In the book, Clare imagines Hoffman’s world and the cruel, but standard, treatments of the insane during the mid 1800s. Into the mix, she throws Hannah, a Jewish young lady who will not speak and hardly eats or sleeps. Hannah is admitted to the asylum because of her behavior and Hoffman sets about finding a cure.
Clare is a magnificent writer. She blends science and history into a greater story with seemingly little effort. Her characters are strong and vivid, from Hoffman and Hannah to Tobias and Angelika. One of my favorites was Josef Neumann, who is transgendered and would not be considered insane today. Actually, many of the asylum’s inmates would not be treated as insane in terms of medicine today, which makes Clare’s book a study in comparisons between then and now.