Bette Howland, Yiyun Li
‘W-3 is one hell of a debut’ Lucy Scholes, Paris Review
‘At moments dazzlingly and daringly written’ Rachel Cooke, Observer
‘Howland is finally getting the recognition that she deserves’ Sarah Hughes, iNews
W-3 is a small psychiatric ward in a large university hospital, a world of pills and passes dispensed by an all-powerful staff, a world of veteran patients with grab-bags of tricks, a world of dishevelled, moment-to-moment existence on the edge of permanence.
Bette Howland was one of those patients. In 1968, Howland was thirty-one, a single mother of two young sons, struggling to support her family on the part-time salary of a librarian; and labouring day and night at her typewriter to be a writer. One afternoon, while staying at her friend Saul Bellow’s apartment, she swallowed a bottle of pills.
W-3 is a vivid – and often surprisingly funny – portrait of the extraordinary community of Ward 3 and a record of a defining moment in a writer’s life. The book itself would be her salvation: she wrote herself out of the grave.
Originally published in 1974 and rediscovered forty years later, this is the first edition of W-3 to be published in the UK. With an original introduction by Yiyun Li, author of Where Reasons End.
‘For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin-real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way . . . At last it had dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.’
The voice is cool and the gaze is clear . . . a startlingly frank account of mental illness, and the contradictions and humiliations of life as a patient . . . akin to a fly-on-the-wall documentary. -- Martha Gill * The Times * A writer of terrifying power, who sees and hears everything . . . Not only is this a sane memoir of madness but it may well be the sanest, most mordant take on the subject I have ever read. -- Frances Wilson * Daily Telegraph * Her memoir, clear-eyed, with an anthropological, sociological distance, is a brilliant attempt to document life on the ward with clinical detachment . . . a wonder. Her prose is direct, unadorned, under-stated. -- Arnold Thomas Fanning * Irish Times * At moments dazzlingly and daringly written . . . Its author captures quite brilliantly the comical competitiveness of her fellow patients - who's the maddest here? they ask, each one hoping to claim victory . . . and she is excellent, too, at delineating what we might call the secret life of the institution. The patients exist for the hospital's sake, rather than the other way around. -- Rachel Cooke * Observer * A devastating memoir . . . Reading it now, what stands out is how bracingly modern it feels - Howland's sharp portraits of her fellow patients, the unsparing eye she turns on herself, her refusal to look away from daily humiliations . . . Howland is finally getting the recognition that she deserves. -- Sarah Hughes * iNews * There's no more interesting tale of neglect and rediscovery than that of Bette Howland . . . W-3 is one hell of a debut . . . It offers us a portal to a particular time and place, yet the compassion and truthfulness that underlies the writing renders it timeless, as urgent a read now as when it was first written nearly half a century ago. -- Lucy Scholes * Paris Review * A cool, brief memoir of her stay on a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt in the early 1970s. -- Daily Telegraph Best Biographies of the Year Full of calibrated grace, and startlingly unmediated . . . [W-3] is remarkably perceptive and wise -- Katy Waldman * New Yorker * A story about her neighbor's heart, not her own-an anthology of the lives she encounters in the ward known as W-3. [Howland tells] the story of a collective with blunt clarity, and sidestepping the genre's potential for sentimentality or sensationalism. She brings the particularities of the world to life -- Parul Sehgal * New York Times * I was much moved by W-3. It is admirably straight and thoughtful, tough-minded but full of powerful feeling. The patients of W-3, black and white, men and women, dizzy, endearing, suicidal, doomed, come to us from these pages not as case studies but as our own brothers and sisters. No poses are struck and no vain gestures made in this brave and honorable book. Bette Howland is a real writer. -- Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize winning author of Seize the Day In an earlier book, W-3, the moving and heroically funny account of Miss Howland's stay in the psychiatric ward of a university hospital after she had swallowed a fistful of sleeping pills, her tough and resilient personality brought a remarkably clearheaded way of seeing and knowing to that chaotic refuge of the dispossessed. * The New York Times * Bette Howland is at her best when her keenly observing eye is turned outward. Watching, always watching, she misses nothing, grasps everything, and puts it all together with an originality and cogency that are rare and memorable . . . she writes as if she were a participant-observer, a novelist-anthropologist in a strange, often perplexing new place. -- Johanna Kaplan * Commentary * W-3 is a portrayal of mental illness like none other. More claustrophobic than Girl, Interrupted and more frightening than The Bell Jar, Howland's memoir maps the world of a 1970s psychiatric ward with an unflinching eye. -- Esme Weijun Wang, author of The Collected Schizophrenias Howland tracks our madnesses and oddnesses . . . Her work lies in a borderland between sociology and poetry -- Abigail Deutsch * Harper's Magazine * [Her] sentences continue to beat with a stylish percussion and a glowing heart -- Donna Rifkind * Wall Street Journal * Howland's powers of observation are like military-grade weapons. * University of Chicago Magazine * In W-3, Bette Howland continues to help us re-imagine the depth and breadth of humanity that a single book can contain, not only in her willingness to portray the vicissitudes of her own experience, but to observe, to empathize, to listen to and take such care with the individuals she encounters along the way. -- Lynn Steger Strong, author of Want Among the many chronicles of depression and psych wards, Howland's is uniquely arresting in its omniscient attention, radiant artistry, zealously pursued insights, and abiding respect for those who share her struggle. -- Donna Seaman Bette Howland wrote a book I thought was impossible to write. -- Yiyun Li A master of silences, of the unsaid, of what cannot be addressed -- Jenessa Abrams * Guernica * With its incisive humor and unsparing descriptions, W-3 refuses a tidy resolution, instead showing how all the 'clumsy, good intentions' in the world can't always provide a cure for the horror and tedium of losing one's mind. * Minneapolis Star Tribune * A gallery of marvelously, devastatingly precise miniatures of Howland's fellow inmates. Howland's eye for detail is unfailingly sharp. She has the cartoonist's knack of seizing and drawing out a person's specific mannerisms and fixations, but what results is never caricature; rather, her depiction of the patients of W-3 is sensitive and sympathetic but powerfully unsentimental. -- Sarah Chihaya * Bookforum * Whether you call it fiction or memoir, essay or reportage, Howland's work manages to feel both rooted in its twentieth century milieu and absolutely at home among today's genre-agnostic writing. -- Laurie Muchnick * Kirkus * No pride or showing-off here; the craft lies in restraint, in what T. S. Eliot calls "a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality" . . . Howland's writerly carpentry-measure twice, cut once-is exquisite. -- Anthony Domestico * Commonweal * Howland's thwarted career is our loss: at her best she is very good. -- Tessa Hadley * LRB * Throughout the book, we rub shoulders with the chatty and the speechless, the erratic and the withdrawn; those sedated by the system and those at the doors begging to be let out . . . Bette Howland's work will, and should be, read and rediscovered time and time again. * Reaction *
Book experts at your service
What are you looking for?