An authentic human story

Surviving me (Unbound) by Jo Johnson.

In her debut novel, Jo Johnson has created an incredibly touching and genuine portrayal of the life of Tom – a husband, friend, son, brother, a normal man whose life is turned around when he becomes suddenly unemployed and is told that he cannot father the child that he and his wife Siri eagerly want. Negative and positive life events unravel in Tom’s everyday life with a familiar pattern and are reciprocally influenced by Tom’s constant stream of thoughts, preoccupations and, most significantly, depression. Jo Johnson illustrates the penetrant nature of depression as it gains monopoly over Tom’s life, social interactions, and relationship with his wife.

The style is fast-paced and gripping, with the right balance of descriptive narrative which allowed me to be completely absorbed in Tom’s life vicissitudes, from the first chapter to the very last word. I understood and sympathised with Tom and the reasons for his behaviours. He is dealing with unemployment, infertility, depression, familial relationships, and his brother-in-law’s sudden diagnosis of a degenerative disease. Tom lives two completely different lives simultaneously. He is a husband, pretending to still work as a double-glazing salesman, while also spending his days at the Tea Cosy Café where he meets interesting and kind people; but Tom struggles to continue with his existence.

The only feasible solution, according to Tom, is to put an end to his suffering and the suffering that he believes he is causing his wife and those around him. Male suicide and depression are represented with an authenticity that feels genuinely human.

Particularly poignant is the stream of thoughts permeating Tom’s routine – endless questioning about his life and self-worth. His childhood trauma clearly impacts his behaviours and interactions, obfuscating his judgement and perception. Childhood recollections, memories, thoughts, worries, and daily events are all entwined.

How interesting it is to be catapulted into Siri’s viewpoint of different situations in some chapters. Tom receives social support from the people he meets at the café and his friend Harry. Good therapeutic communications and the pivotal function of the NHS are essential elements of this novel.

In the midst of what life throws at him, Tom is surviving, like most of us would, maybe, hopefully. This book is a compelling and heart-warming representation of male depression and suicide, providing a fresh, hopeful outlook on mental health and the unpredictability of what life has in store for every one of us.

-  Reviewed by Sara Pisani, research assistant at UCL

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