Two mental patients, one suicidally depressed and the other schizophrenic, form a friendship that changes both their lives.
Oliver Graham wishes he were dead. He’s living in a mental health facility in Chicago, but in his mind he’s still living in the moment of the death of his wife and son. He finds a friend in Penelope, a woman who hears voices and believes she can communicate with aliens. They’re both miserable, but when they’re together the world at least makes a little more sense.
Tanya J. Peterson’s Leave of Absence has a lot to recommend it, but one thing to say is that it really gets mental illness right. It endeavors to respect these characters, and not make the horrible mistake of either romanticizing their conditions, or letting their conditions define them as characters.
Oliver and Penelope are complicated people, and they have complicated problems that cannot simply be solved with the wave of a hand. The other characters are at times less sketched out, but another standout is William, Penelope’s infinitely patient, caring fiancée, waiting for the love of his life to be better again and go home (ironically, the real Penelope of this narrative), but constantly tempted to leave her behind.
What Peterson gives these characters to say is sometimes interesting and sometimes also inane: the dialogue is inconsistent in quality and at times can be quite transparent and mechanical: “’It sounds like a good idea,’ Oliver commented. ‘What did you say to me earlier today? That your doctor told you that you need to face this head on? This sounds like a perfect way to do that.’”  At times the flashbacks to Oliver’s past are illuminating, but at times they’re also kind of boring or redundant: in general there’s probably too much backstory crammed into this novel.
But the writing overall is good: fancy but not overly florid, just enough to keep the narrative going. The sadness is communicated so very well, and only the most hard-hearted will come away from the book without having shed at least a tear or two.
Leave of Absence is touching, if occasionally a little schmaltzy, full of grief and loss, and occasionally some fairly well-placed glimmers of hope.
Reviewed by Charles Baker for IndieReader