Out of Order: A Haphazard Journey Through One Woman's Year

January 1999

Never judge a book by its cover, so the saying goes, and rejecting Out of Order on account of the jacket's bizarre typeface and its 'book club' feel would certainly be a mistake. There's more to Jane Lapotaire's self-confessed 'haphazard' journey than the graphic designer would have us believe.

Lapotaire is an actress of long-standing distinction and a single, working mother. In this collection of essays, tenuously linked by the notion of passing time, she offers differing degrees of insight into the diverse fragments of her life. The style of the many sections within sections veers between erudite essay and kitchen-table chat, flashes of brilliance interrupting stretches of homeliness. If there are rather too many colloquial asides, too many 'you may well asks' and 'by the ways', the informality contrasts well with a more reflective approach elsewhere. The serious parts, her thoughts on religion and a particularly lucid analysis of her work, make for the most interesting reading. By contrast, the lighter chapters feel insubstantial.

Unlike many writers, happy to fashion a thousand well-crafted words out of the mundane yet unable to illuminate any of life's greater questions, Lapotaire is at her best when she is tackling those 'pas devant' subjects which are normally swept under the carpet.

At the centre of the book, both emotionally and physically, is a pair of essays which catalogue her descent into and recovery from what is probably - although it is never given a name - a nervous breakdown. She leads us unsuspectingly into the onset, jauntily recounting the manic midnight cleaning session which slides without warning into total despair. For most people, this not unfamiliar scenario of exhaustion, frenzied activity and irrational emotion ends in nothing worse than a few tears. For Lapotaire, it didn't stop there. She describes with clinical clarity what happened next, the 'free fall' away from reality which left her hospitalised for three weeks. Within days of returning home, and without any resources to draw upon, she was back on the stage. That great theatrical mantra, 'the show must go on', rings hollow when set against the image of Lapotaire, propped up by medication, earning a paltry living at such enormous cost. It's a searingly effective piece of writing, crisply economic and without self-pity, which binds the reader so closely to the author that quibbles about the rest of the book recede.

Taken as a whole, Out of Order is an uneven book, its giddy changes of pace and style perfectly feasible within a year (or the two which she admits the writing encompassed) yet uncomfortable within a single read. Nevertheless, parts of it drew me so deeply into Lapotaire's life that I wanted to overlook the book's weaknesses in the way you discount a minor failing in a much-loved friend. Perhaps this is the measure of its success.