Book Review: The In-Between, by Barbara Stewart

When Elanor Moss moves with her family for a fresh start after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, she thinks this will be a new beginning, a chance to shed the Old Elanor for the New Elanor and strike out on her own. Unfortunately, a catastrophic car accident intervenes, and sends her off into a spiraling catastrophe as her injured brain attempts to cope. The answer to her loneliness and confusion appears in the form of gorgeous and bold Madeline, but Madeline may be more than she seems. As Elanor’s life falls apart, her reality and yours as the reader will be hopelessly upended. And as this review continues, there will be major spoilers, so be warned.

The In-Between is a bold debut novel for Barbara Stewart, who chose to tackle some tough subjects here with a hand that is remarkably skilled, showing immense potential for future works. One of the things I love about this book (and something many readers did not) was the fact that it was highly ambiguous in nature from beginning to end. This is not a book that neatly ties things up or generates clean answers for the reader—I know how I personally interpreted it, but that’s not necessarily the only legitimate reading of the book.

In one version of the book, Elanor Moss is caught in a creepy supernatural situation as the soul of the twin sister who died in the womb instead of being born attempts to emerge. Madeline is the girl that was never born; perfect, because she never had an opportunity to do anything wrong on Earth, and a representation of everything Elanor is not and can never be. As she stalks through the house moving furniture, opening doors, and committing other acts, she slowly drives Elanor and her mother closer to the brink of a profound break in their relationship, because her mother refuses to accept that this is a haunting.

In another version of the book, Elanor is experiencing the onset of severe mental illness, in the form of a psychotic break. She hears voices and sees things, believes that people around her are conspiring to get her, and doesn’t trust anyone to help her. At the same time, though, she questions the world around her; she wonders if perhaps everything she’s experiencing is actually the result of mental illness, not a sideways step into a new reality, and wonders if maybe she really does need to reach out for help. Trapped between what she thinks is reality and her own doubts, Elanor struggles to navigate a tightrope that is ultimately too difficult for her.

Whichever version you think is the true narrative (and perhaps it is a bit of both?) when Elanor falls, she falls hard. The people around her have not fully understood how deep in trouble she is until it’s too late, and they struggle to get her the help she needs, even if she’s not exactly sure what form that help should take. Does she need an exorcist or a psychiatrist? Medications or a seance? With her whole life torn apart by the accident and its aftermath, Elanor lives in a world of shifting quicksand and she’s not sure where to turn.

Obviously, I have a certain soft spot for young adult fiction that explores mental illness, especially when it does so in a nebulous way. The experience of mental illness is rarely clear-cut; it is not the same for everyone, let alone between two people, and it often onsets during periods of extreme stress, when the entire world seems to be shifting and it becomes very difficult to tell what is real and what is not, and whether you should be questioning your reality. As in Wild Awake, on the surface this might be a book about one thing, but as the story progresses you realise that something is going deeply wrong and the character is floundering.

For outside observers, that struggle may be painful to watch, but it also provides a glimpse into what it is like to not understand the boundaries of reality. Many people who have not experienced psychosis and similar breaks with reality don’t understand, on a visceral level, what it is like to genuinely not know what is real and what is not, and to not know where to turn in search of answers. For Elanor, these nebulous barriers seem to flex and turn with her, and she lives in a world where nothing, even her own perceptions, can be trusted. Stewart brings that out with bold strokes of the pen here, offering insight into an experience that some readers may never have, but they could someday observe.

For readers who may go on to experience mental illness (or those who are struggling with it, or even those who live with managed mental health conditions), The In-Between offers something else. A sense of immediacy, of common ground, of not being alone in the world. One of the common experiences of adolescents in mental health crises is the belief that they are experiencing something unique to them, that something about them is fundamentally broken and wrong, and that they don’t dare reach out for help. Knowing that other people have had similar experiences, and survived, is a critical part of coming to terms with adolescent mental illness, and to seeking assistance from friends, family, and professionals.

Maybe Elanor is just haunted. Maybe she’s mentally ill. Maybe she’s both, and like many young women, she lives in a world where few people are going to take her seriously when she tries to talk about it. That’s why books like this become so important; because they act as reassurance to people going through new and difficult life experiences, and because they serve as a reminder to outsiders that these experiences are terrifying and deserve compassion, not fear, hatred, or disdain.