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The “Loving Prison” of Brain Injury: Bridget Pitt Launches Notes From the Lost Property Department

Bridget Pitt

Bridget Pitt launched her latest novel, Notes From the Lost Property Department, at The Book Lounge recently, where she was joined in a fascinating discussion with veteran books journalist Jennifer Crocker.

The Book Lounge owner Mervyn Sloman described the book as being about love, families and dealing with brains that no longer work: “It’s a novel about the unbearable, intolerable weight of shame, but, like the best literature around the world, it’s more than the sum of what it’s about. It’s beautifully written and – as a bookseller trying to sum up a book to a potential buyer – it is very difficult to explain in a short description. It is a very South African novel.”

Bridget Pitt and Jennifer CrockerNotes From the Lost Property DepartmentCrocker has read the book three times. “Each time I found it very beautiful and completely mesmerising. I took it to bed and stayed there till it was finished,” she said.

Pitt said that the story was inspired by the powerful landscape of the Drakensberg mountains where she spent much time hiking with her father as a child. On returning to the hotel as an adult she discovered the burnt-out ruins. “It grew from there, something about this hotel that was once a place in my mind sparked a story about how mountains impact on people’s lives and how a moment on a family holiday can have these unraveling consequences over a period of years,” she said.

Careful not to give the plot away, Crocker spoke about how the story was told in two voices, the mother and the daughter, in two time spans. She said: “The sense of going back, returning to something that had been broken and the patching together of damaged people can be healing.”

Pitt spoke about how alive the voices of Iris and the characters were to her. “They get annoyed with you when you’re not writing them properly. Every moment that you’re not sitting down and writing them, they want to be told.”

Pitt reflected on the character of the mountain: “Because I encountered that mountain, the Amphitheatre in the northern Drakensberg, it was really such an astonishing presence. It sat with me when I was back in Johannesburg. The knowledge that it existed remained. As I grew older and walked more of it, it stayed as a symbol of many life struggles and achievements. In the early days my father’s simple philosophy was to keep going, just to put down one foot in front of the other. When I’m struggling with something, I hear that voice in my head telling me to keep on, not to give up.”

The author, who also received the Judges’ Choice Runner-Up award in the 2015 Short Sharp Stories Award, commented on the research that went into the book. “My father suffered a brain injury and my mother suffered from a non-specific dementia. Anybody who has suffered from this inevitably arrives at the point of asking, ‘Who am I?’ It was that issue of identity as my parents grew into an altered state, they were still themselves, but they were different. For me that was a real worry and a real challenge.

“I wanted to understand, ‘who are you?’ It’s an organ like any other, and yet it impacts on your life and your relationships. Brain injury is hugely complex in how it manifests. Once you have an injured brain, you have a whole lot of life challenges that bring emotional complexity to the situation. It’s hard to know what is a consequence of your injured brain, and what is a consequence of the consequences,” she mused.

Pitt discovered that the more she read, the more she hoped to find a clear case study on which to base her storyline. “But every case study was so individual,” she said. “Even with almost identical injuries, the way it played out, the recovery or lack thereof was so individual. In the end, I had to tell the story I wanted to tell based on the reading I’d done and the people I spoke to.”

Crocker noted that when you love somebody with a brain injury and you are the primary carer you can find yourself in a “loving prison”. Pitt said it changed her life’s trajectory. “It’s hard to get the balance as a parent. There are points when you just want to lock your child in a padded cell to keep them from harm. Of course, you can’t. You have to close your eyes and trust your child but when their ability to look after themselves has been compromised, the balance of protecting them becomes far more complex.”

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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:



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