A prologue to this review: I come from the same small town as the author; his older brother (who appears in The Fear Talking) was my friend through primary school; I got on the same bus, followed the same tortuously long route to the same college, studied the same subjects with the same tutors. Even the music overlaps to a startling degree. Reading this memoir was chock full of moments of incredibly specific recognition, from the pathways and hideaways around Barton and the Humber to the unnerving shock of being addressed with your name by the college principal you'd never met. But not only those—as a reader whose own adolescence and early adulthood suffered more than its share of anxiety there were so many other moments that resounded, seemed familiar: the constant imagining of worst-case outcomes; the excuses planned out weeks ahead; the endless, endless calculations. All of which is a long-winded way to say that reading The Fear Talking was a profoundly moving and uniquely personal experience for me, but what follows is—as best I can—a review for everyone else.
The Fear Talking begins when the memoirist, Chris Westoby, is sixteen years old. September brings with it the start of a new routine: an hour-long journey in a dusty, packed bus across country to Leggott College. But at the same time Chris is suffering from building, debilitating anxiety and the routine swiftly becomes something else: a nervous, nauseated journey to college only to return by the next bus if he's lucky, or on less good days he will let the bus go by and he'll while away the hours tramping around the fields surrounding Barton until he can safely go home and claim it's an 'early day, remember?' He obsesses constantly about digestion—worries in every situation that he might be about to experience a bout of vomiting or diarrhoea, plans every situation by his distance from a bathroom; this builds into a fixation on germs and cleanliness and a quasi-religious fixation with being 'punished.' His inability to articulate how pervasive the anxiety is complicates his relationships with those around him—his parents, his girlfriend, his friends.
The blurbs on the inside of the cover focus on The Fear Talking as a memoir of anxiety and its benefit to readers who wish to understand living with anxiety as the author has. In that regard The Fear Talking does a superlative job; it strikes the tricky balance of using repetition (the cycle of envisioning worst-case scenarios; the obsessive planning of timings to avoid disaster; the counting of tablets; the protective rituals) to create an immersive sense of what it feels like to live this way. Footnotes run throughout as a bubbling ever-present sub-narrative that insert a litany of worries into mundane moments. On a purely practical-writer level, it's an astonishing feat to maintain this without it becoming frustrating to read; instead it conveys a deep sense of exactly how exhausting it is. Much of the tension of The Fear itself derives from the author's inability to articulate his feelings to those around him, but as a memoir it does an inarguably vivid job of putting it into words. As a window into the experience of anxiety for those who have never experienced it in this way, it's illuminating; as a reflection for those who may be experiencing it without yet having words to explain it, it's invaluable.
Beyond this, though, The Fear Talking is also an adept picture of adolescence; if the idea of a mental health memoir isn't something that might ordinarily catch your interest, Westoby is also telling a vivid coming-of-age story. It's richly detailed, well-observed and often very funny. He has a light touch in creating the 'characters' that thread throughout—especially in capturing both the crassness and subtleties of teenage boys and their friendships—and in building the small-but-significant defeats and victories that mark the path. Tensions rise between the author and both his girlfriend and his parents, the latter in particular skilfully handled. His sometimes-strained relationship with Emma is rife with complex contradictions—she is both support and catalyst for anxiety—and Westoby certainly cuts himself no slack. A note at the end thanks his parents for supporting him in writing a book that could 'only hurt to read,' but their inability to understand while still trying to help is sympathetic and moving. For a story that is so much about being scared, this is writing at its most fearless.
Matthew Bright is a writer, editor and designer who's never sure what order to put those in. His fiction has appeared in Tor, Nightmare, Lightspeed, among others, and collected in his Lambda Literary Award finalist collection Stories To Sing In The Dark (Lethe Press, 2019). He is the editor of a number of anthologies and by day works as a book designer. With Christopher Black, he's co-author of the experimental novella Between the Lines, which was reviewed here. You can find him at @mbrightwriter on twitter, or matthew-bright.com.