I love when fiction clearly comes from the heart and from personal experience, and that’s exactly the sense I got from reading Anish Majumdar’s The Isolation Door. The work is the complicated story of a young man, Neil Kapoor, trying to deal with both his mother’s schizophrenia (plus the family dynamics that go along with her care) and the challenge of starting a rigorous acting program while falling in love and making friends with his classmates at the same time.
Neil’s mother has been in and out of the hospital ever since he can remember, and his father and aunt have very different ideas about how to handle her during the times she is able to stay at home. There is a constant sense that Neil’s home world is falling apart, and he’s clearly unsure of what role he can (or should) play in caring for his mother’s mental health.
At school, Neil is facing the confrontational teaching style of his main instructor in the acting program and navigating his feelings and connections to some of the fellow students. In his relationships with the other students we see a replication of certain dynamics that Neil has faced throughout his experience growing up with his mother, as well as some elements pushing him toward changing who he is and the behaviors he’s used to cope.
While this is certainly not a “happy” book, for the most part I really enjoyed Majumdar’s style of writing, with its strong mix of dreamscapes, memories, and present life. The first half can be a little jerky as you get used to his style of describing relationships — the characters seem to connect and change their relationships with each other awfully fast at times, particularly in Neil’s “theater life.” But overall I really enjoyed his writing.
Through telling a fictional story inspired by his own experiences, Majumdar is diversifying our sense of who struggles with mental illness. The main character doesn’t shy away from describing his family’s background or talking about the aspects of his life that are built on South Asian culture. At the same time he’s also tapping into universal experiences of trying to fit in and figure out what he wants out of life.
In this sense, I think Majumdar is doing an admirable job of working through the complications of being an author of color. It seems so easy to be categorized as either “too ethic” or “not ethnic enough.” I hope that he won’t get pigeonholed one way or the other as the book continues to get read and promoted.
Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.