Poppy Shakespeare

Publisher: Anchor Canada
Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize

Poppy Shakespeare is wholly unique — both an insider’s look at the madness of the mental health system and an outsider’s discovery of the power of an unlikely friendship, it signals the arrival of an extraordinary new voice on the international literary scene.

Who is mad? Who is sane? Who decides?

Welcome to the Dorothy Fish, a day hospital in North London. N has been a patient here for thirteen years. Day after day she sits smoking in the common room, swapping medication and comparing MAD money rates. Like all the patients at the Dorothy Fish, N’s chief ambition is never to get discharged. Each year, when her annual assessment comes round, she is relieved to learn that she hasn’t got any better.

Then in walks Poppy Shakespeare in her six-inch skirt and twelve-inch heels. She is certain she isn’t mentally ill and desperate to return to her life outside. Though baffled by Poppy’s attitude, N agrees to help. Together they plot to gain Poppy’s freedom. But in a world where everything’s upside-down, are they crazy enough to upset the system?

Funny, brilliant, and moving, Poppy Shakespeare looks at madness from the inside, questioning our mental health system and the borders we place between sanity and insanity. Written in high-voltage prose, original and troubling, it is a stunning debut.

Excerpt from Poppy Shakespeare:

‘It’s not that I’ve got a problem with mental illness,’ Poppy said. ‘It’s just there’s nothing the matter with me. Do you know what I’m saying?’

‘I wouldn’t worry bout that,’ I said. ‘They must think you’s mad or you wouldn’t be here. Candid Headphones don’t reckon she’s mad. Never stopped her,’ I said. . . .

‘Poppy?’ I said, cause I got to say it. Be like watching a blind man walk under a bus. ‘You know what you said bout not thinking you’s mad?’

‘Yes,’ she said, like what of it?

‘Well I wouldn’t say nothing to them about that,’ I told her. ‘Not at the moment. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I ain’t saying nothing. It’s just the doctors, you never know. They might decide to pick up on it. I mean, it’s up to you, do you know what I’m saying, but maybe if you stick to your other symptoms.’

From the Hardcover edition.


1. How it all begun

I'm not being funny, but you can't blame me for what happened. All I done was try and help Poppy out. Same as I would of anyone, ain't my fault is it, do you know what I'm saying, not making like Mother Teresa, but that's how I am.

It weren't like you realised anyway, not at the...
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1. There are moments when N describes aspects of her world in terms that verge on the surreal: Abbadon Tower is described as being “so tall you couldn’t even make out the top of it. It gone up so high you couldn’t see the windows and it kept going up until all you could see was this fiant red line...

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“Allan casually yet boldly manages to bring the reader into N’s chaotic and feudal world. . . . Poppy Shakespeare is not only the careful telling of an unbelievable tale, but also a provoking examination of our health systems and the ethos of psychiatric facilities. . . . For anyone looking for a dynamic summer read with a troubling twist, Poppy Shakespeare is a worthy debut.”
Winnipeg Free Press

A “stunning debut novel . . . so alive it practically sparks off the page. Oh, and then there’s the riotous humour. This is a laugh-out-loud kind of book. . . . In a long literary tradition of novels that chronicle “the Mental Patient,” Poppy Shakespeare stands out because its author has brought the madwoman down from the attic, or out of the shadows, and placed her at the centre of her own tale. . . . A rip-roaring good story.”
Globe & Mail

“The superlatives are all shabby with overuse. Brilliant and incisive. Stunningly original. Heartbreaking. Something new will have to be minted for Poppy Shakespeare and her author, Clare Allan. . . . [It is] funny and ironic, but it is also a skewering portrait of the mental health system, and not just in Britain. . . . This is a debut novel, but already Allan is a literary force to contend with, one of those rare, oh-too-rare, writers who can make your mind and heart and guts flip in simultaneous somersaults. Don't give this a miss. It's the real thing.”
–Merilyn Simonds in The Gazette (Montreal)

Catch-22 meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a North London day hospital — Clare Allan’s Poppy Shakespeare is an electrifying debut, written after 10 years as a psychiatric patient, which bursts on to the page with a wholly original voice: surreal, raucous, infuriating and very funny.”
Guardian (UK)

“Allan’s world isn’t quite right in the head, but is as real as a slap in the face. Her prose has an irresistible dark gumption reminiscent of Ali Smith. . . . As Allan . . . reminds us, you don’t have to be sane to see the funny side.”
The Times (UK)

Poppy Shakespeare is a distinctive and powerful debut, full of brave experiments that generate unexpectedly fierce emotional heat. In a literary scene whose established stars milk tragedies such as the Holocaust or 9/11 for precious little reason beyond their own artistic vanity, Allan has given us something indigestibly, potently true.”
—Michel Faber, author of The Crimson Petal and the White, in the Guardian (UK)

Poppy Shakespeare has that rare quality: the feel of a book that needed to be written. . . . It is bitterly, brutally funny and extraordinarily moving. . . . The exuberant wit and colourful imagery, and the strangely endearing character of N. herself make Poppy Shakespeare such a pleasure to read.”
The Telegraph (UK)

“Here is a serious novel which portrays the mentally ill with both raucous humour and with an empathy altogether lacking in sentimentality. The pitch of the narrative voice is perfect, and the characters, in all their bravado, pathos and absurdity, feel utterly true to life. It is a brave and original piece of work.”
–Patrick McGrath, author of Spider and Asylum

From the Hardcover edition.