2. Regeneration by Pat Barker
It is 1917, and at Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh psychiatrist William Rivers is tasked with curing shell-shocked soldiers and returning them to the front fit for purpose. Among his patients are the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, from whom Rivers – believing that the recollection of trauma is key to recovery – must coax their worst memories of active combat. Far from being a godlike figure, Barker’s healer is attractive because of his humility in the face of experiences he hasn’t himself shared.
3. Beyond the Glass by Antonia White
The last book in White’s May Quartet, based on her early life, gives us a nightmare glimpse of the punitive British asylum system of the 1920s. Like White, her heroine Clara Batchelor shows signs of mania following the collapse of a bad marriage, is certified as insane, and sent to Bethlem Hospital (better known as Bedlam) where “for months she was not even a human being; she was a horse. Ridden almost to death, beaten till she fell”’ – an unforgettable image of institutionalised terror.
4. The Divided Self by RD Laing
A groundbreaking exploration of sanity and madness that explains schizophrenia and its origins within the context of troubled family relationships. Though Laing’s theory has been challenged since he proposed it in 1960, his perspective remains exceptional due to its profound empathy with the afflicted. In his later writing Laing went even further, characterising madness not as an illness but as “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”.