We never experience firsthand the mental illness of poet Savannah Wingo in Pat Conroy’s novel THE PRINCE OF TIDES (ISBN 978-0553381542), but witnessing it through the point-of-view of her twin Tom Wingo is bad enough.
Tom heads to New York City after his sister Savannah again tries to commit suicide, and over the course of the novel he unravels, with the help of Savannah’s new psychiatrist Dr. Susan Lowenstein, how Savannah has come to be so injured in mind and spirit.
Conroy explores with brutal honesty how family secrets can mess a writer up inside so badly that she (or he) can barely function. Here’s a scene from Chapter 2 where Tom and his brother Luke have found Savannah during a psychotic episode:
“Is that what you think Savannah’s in there doing?” Luke said, pointing toward her door. “When she talks to the angels and dogs? When she drools into her sandals? When she checks into the nut house? Is that how you face the truth?”
“No. I just think the truth is leaking out all over her. I don’t think she faced it any better than we did, but I don’t think her powers of suppression are as strong as ours either.”
“She’s crazy because she writes.”
“She crazy because of what she has to write about. She writes about a young girl growing up in South Carolina, about what she knows best in the world. What would you have her write about–Zulu teenagers, Eskimo drug addicts?”
“She should write about what won’t hurt her, what won’t draw out the dogs.”
“She has to write about them, Luke. That’s where the poetry comes from. Without them, there’s no poetry.”
And here’s a scene from Chapter 7 when Tom remembers his childhood with Savannah:
Yet the garden angels did not intervene when my mother burned my sister’s notebook in the wood stove after Savannah recorded a fight between my mother and father word for word. In a rage, my mother burned a year’s work one page at a time as Savannah wept and begged her to stop. The words of a child became smoke above the island. Sentences took wing and fell in black fragments upon the river. My mother screamed that Savannah was never to write another word about her family again.
The next week I found Savannah kneeling in an exposed sandbar in the river at the lowest tide. She was writing furiously in the sand with her index finger. I watched from the shore for half an hour. When she had finished, the tide was turning and the water began to cover her words.
She stood and looked back toward the house and saw me watching her.
“My journal,” she cried out happily.
This is a painful novel to read–horrible things have happened to Savannah, Tom, and Luke (all characters I came to care about)–but the book provides a catharsis that I once found life-saving when I first read it. There is deep sorrow in this story, but there is also hope.