Book Review – Linda Gask’s ‘Finding True North: The Healing Power of Place’

the cover of Finding True North by Linda Gask. A faded turquoise cover with a white compass in the centre

Linda Gask, ‘Finding True North: The Healing Power of Place.’

Published by Sandstone Press ISBN 978-1-913207-34-2

Reviewed by Heather Cobb, Peer bibliotherapy volunteer with Words in Mind, Mad Covid member.

I’m a bibliotherapy peer worker. Every once in a while, someone will arch a brow and ask me ‘so books as medicine, what do books actually do for patients?’ There are as many answers to that question as there are patients who want to read; but for me books do two important things. Books provide vital escapism and books bring a person closer to understanding their pain. This was why I was keen to review ‘Finding True North, the healing power of place.’ Once my copy had arrived, I set aside time every morning to escape into two chapters and then the rest of the day to mull over what I read.

The book itself is a lovely object, the compass cover art is included on chapter heading pages and the book is indexed so that you can easily return to a theme or a reference you want to follow up. The select bibliography makes for an excellent reading list. Linda has organised each chapter by a theme and the themes are relevant to most people reckoning with illness and loss. ‘Finding True North’ is written in plain, readable language. As a neurodiverse reader, I appreciated this! You could keep this book by a bedside and dip in and out without feeling as though you had lost the plot.

Each chapter has a flow that begins a natural landscape and continues in vignettes of Linda’s own life, her perspective on the theories she encountered as a psychiatrist and the patients who have taught Linda about illness and healing. The acknowledgments include a dedication to Linda’s patients, and I got a lot from seeing their stories honoured here. Linda writes as if to a friend and it must have taken a degree of courage to write about her relationships and family life. This book feels as rooted in Linda’s relationships as it is in her cottage in Orkney and that was both surprising and pleasurable to see in a retired psychiatrist’s memoir. Often people write about place and forget the privilege of living in an idyllic area. I enjoyed seeing Linda recall the places that healed her and the people who helped get here there. I’m sure a fair few of us will relate to travel mishaps described in ‘Finding True North’ and the way chronic illness happens to us while we are making other plans.

As I sat down to read each morning, I found myself excited to see which exotic land Linda’s story would take me; Orkney, the villages of the Gwaii Haanass people in Canada, Rio De Janeiro, Sheffield Hallam Hospital. (No shade, Sheffield, I love you!) Linda captures the soul of each in a way that transported me there. I’ve been longing to got to beach since lockdown began last year and so the evocative descriptions of the Orkney coast hit the spot. As I reached the end of ‘Finding True North’ I felt a satisfying sense of resolution and flicking back to chapter one, I realised the book begins with the spring in Orkney and ends at Christmas time, which struck me as a clever nod to the seasonal aspects of full circle of healing.

Books about loss and recovery make up a decent part of my bibliotherapy kit because people need to see their struggles made real. There has been a trend toward a kind of neat recovery memoir that promises a happy ending and personally, that sort of memoir turn me off. ‘Finding True North’ is thankfully not an ‘inspirational tale.’ What I want from a memoir is to see the moments of despair and hopelessness I encounter in my own life, and in the lives of people I do peer work alongside, writ honestly upon the pages. I know a writer has done that well when I close the book having learned something new about familiar despair. I learned a lot from ‘Finding True North.’

Linda has struck the balance between being candid about her experiences of loss and sharing what gives her life meaning. That is not easy to do whilst drawing on a professional and the personal viewpoint. Linda has succeeded in conveying about the panic of ringing the bedside call button to find no nurse is coming just as powerfully as she writes about her daily life as a psychiatrist. I found that delicate balance comforting; here is a story from someone who found her values and is unafraid to tell us how she arrived at them. In that sense, this book could benefit many readers, whether they work in mental health services or have used mental health services for years.

Linda covers so many theories and issues that NSUN readers will recognise and that rage on in debates today.  Positive psychology in modern health care, how anti-depressants are prescribed, structural injustice, personality disorders in crisis care, all these hot potatoes appear in the context of real people’s experiences, be they Linda’s or her patients. These issues are examined with a light touch, ‘Finding True North’ asks questions without telling the reader what to think. Just as a guide would offer a map and an umbrella, Linda offers ideas and theories about healing for the reader to follow up themselves. I think that would be a useful book for somebody who is in the early stages of healing who hasn’t got the energy to follow a heavy tome on mental illness.

Towards the end of the book, Linda includes a quote from writer Richard Mabey, who talks about healing as ‘the wild outdoors entering your mind and reigniting your imagination.’ ‘Finding True North’ did that for me. I might be back in a local lockdown in suburban Mirfield but reading this book gave me the mental rest I needed to feel like going for a walk again. The little threads of wild stories; Katie the stray cat who wanders in, John’s pursuit of the perfect golden hour photograph, the stresses of living in a cottage where the windows leak in a storm, these kept my attention on the mornings where I struggled to read much of anything else. What can books do for people who suffer? A good book gives you back a little bit of your own self, reignited and ready to roam. Finding ‘True North’ certainly did that for me and on that basis, I can recommend it. My copy is going on a journey of it’s own, into my grab bag of books for bibliotherapy sessions.