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Lifeline: an Elegy by Stephanie Kain

Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin

Lifelineis a frank, poetic discussion of the myriad facets of mental illness, so intimate, detailed, and honest that you’ll feel you’re there beside Kain, perhaps even as S, the one whom she addresses. Exhaling fear, hope, and horror, Kain watches as her best friend dissolves inside locked psych wards, while on the outside, she struggles to manage her own anxiety and depression, raise a child, start a restaurant during COVID, and set up a home in P.E.I.

This is not an easy book to read, despite Kain’s creative gifts and her seemingly easy spins with experimental memoir. Her dance floor is sparse, antiseptic, grey; her partner rising and falling, and falling again, and she with her. The book is subtitled “an elegy,” and given that it’s penned by a literary professor, we know a tragic outcome awaits even before we begin. An elegy is most often a lament for the dead, an expression of mourning, grief, and sorrow, so no matter how pretty the phrasing, the verdict remains. But writing is a means to healing, and so Kain writes, and so we read.

Much of Lifeline is written in a conversational tone to her beloved, like the beautiful chapter “Eight Things I’m Putting in Your Care Package” when her friend’s been in the hospital for three years, and she can’t visit, and S doesn’t talk because she’s so drugged, and they’re threatening ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy)—a rainbow zippered pouch, air fresheners, hair ties, a notebook, one small book of crossword puzzles, multicoloured pens, one small book of wordsearch, a get-well card, a sketchpad, and a game of Uno—and with it, all the stories and reasons why each is necessary and included.

As if anxiety and suicidal depression aren’t enough, Lifeline is penned in the time of Trump and COVID. Some chapters are also addressed to Kain’s wife, who lives through the drama as a witness. Again, these conversations are so personal and intimate that the reader feels like they’re listening at the crack of a closed door. I tell you this because this may be a door you want to open or a door you’d prefer to close. Maybe you’ve opened it yourself and don’t want to go there again. Or maybe you do. Or maybe you want a roadmap from someone who’s driven the route and kept on going.

In creative nonfiction or experimental memoir, each page is unexpected—a chapter of texts and Kain’s personal responses to them; a personal essay; a shaft of poetry (left margin, right margin, short and centred); shifting fonts (italics, bold, thin, and light type); a massive semicolon dividing the page; snappy titles and snappier quotations; one-line pages where blank is the divider, a feature and perhaps a relief; lists and calligraphic notes growing more erratic as we voyage toward the end.

Lifelineis at once a critique of the mental health system, a lament for a friend, and an expression of deep love and commitment.

Stephanie Kain is a creative writing professor at the University of Ottawa. Twice, she’s been shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award—“championing queer literary excellence.” She lives in Prince Edward Island and in Ottawa, and Lifeline expresses her unique creative brilliance.

Lifeline is published by ECW Press.

Wendy Hawkin writes an urban fantasy series, The Hollystone Mysteries, for Blue Haven Press. Her latest novel: Lure won a National Indie Excellence Award.

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