TORONTO—Karen Hill didn’t live to see her debut novel published, but the poignant tale offers a window into her world and the real-life struggles she faced in battling mental illness.
In “Cafe Babanussa” (HarperCollins), the late sister of award-winning author Lawrence Hill turns the lens on Ruby, a young mixed-race woman who leaves Canada behind for a new life in 1980s West Berlin. The journey abroad becomes turbulent for Ruby as she confronts her challenges with mental health.
“It’s not a faithfully biographical novel,” Lawrence said in a recent interview. “It doesn’t replicate faithfully Karen’s life, but it replicates it pretty well.”
Karen lived with bipolar disorder for three decades, and occasionally had short-term hospital stays.
In early 2014, she was released on a weekend pass following weeks of hospitalization in Toronto. While out for a celebratory meal with her daughter, Malaika, Karen choked on some food and lost consciousness, slipping into a coma. She died days later at age 56.
Karen’s posthumous novel is bookended with a moving foreword by Lawrence, and her autobiographical essay “On Being Crazy,” where she wrote candidly of the family’s history of mental health problems.
“I wanted to write honestly and with love about Karen’s life and talk about her mental illness, but not do so in a way that disregarded other parts of her humanity and made her such a wonderful person,” said Lawrence.
“That’s one thing to remember when you’re talking about people with mental illness: they’re still people with all the dimensionality any other human being would have.”
Lawrence said he went to visit Karen three times in Berlin. In his foreword, he recalls the first trip came in the fall of 1984 following a harrowing call from his brother-in-law—whom he had never met or even spoken with—telling him Karen was sick.
“He saw Karen kind of sliding into madness and knew that she needed help.”
Lawrence said a striking scene in “Cafe Babanussa”—and one of the most memorable in the novel—involves Ruby among women hospitalized in a West Berlin psych ward.
“They’re talking about their men and they’re talking about their problems, and there’s some friction between these women,” he said.
“There’s race and there’s class and there’s love and mental illness and all of these things that are interwoven in the novel. I’ve never quite read a scene in fiction that’s that poignant or fascinating.”
The book’s opening passage is rich with detail about Ruby preparing a family meal—not unlike Karen, whom Lawrence described as a “fantastic cook.”
“When (my brother) Dan or I was having a party, we’d always get her to cater it and make the most amazing dishes.
“She was something of a party animal…. She did love to be in a party in a family-meal situation. And the fact that she writes so intimately about those family scenes, the arguments, as well as enjoying great food really points to some of her own personal obsessions.
“Karen loved the family even if she sometimes found it oppressive, and wrote about that oppressiveness in this novel.”
Karen worked on “Cafe Babanussa” for two decades and was showing it to publishers prior to her death.
“I don’t think it’s easy for the average person to appreciate how challenging it would have been for a person with bipolar disorder to write that novel,” said Lawrence.
“Karen would sometimes be down for six or eight months in being very ill, go sliding into illness or being hospitalized and then climbing out of the pit of hell that comes with psychosis and bipolarity….
“And then as she began to regain lucidity and clarity and functionality and be able to live well on her own, she’d return to this book and scratch out another chapter or two…..
“As a writer and as a brother, I’m just blown away by her stamina and courage and determination to finish that damn thing.”