Sunday, 17 October 2010

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

I can't imagine there are many of you who don't know the story within One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (I must be one of the few to have never watched the film or read the book), but here is a brief summary: Nurse Ratched rules her ward in an Oregon State mental hospital with a strict routine. Her regime is unopposed until the arrival of McMurphy, a swaggering rogue of a character, who takes it upon himself to defy her at every turn on behalf of his fellow inmates.

I've been sitting on this review for a couple of days, and those who follow me on Twitter know that I have been having trouble marshalling my thoughts - how best to provide commentary on a book that completely devastated me?

I was told to read this - I've always been ever so reluctant to pick up those books deemed to be classics. I don't know why. Maybe because I feel I'll be made to look stupid when I fail to understand why everyone loves the book. With One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I completely understand why people talk it up so much - in fact, I plan to become one of those unutterably boring people who constantly recommend the same book to everyone.

I loved this book. It took me over a week to read and it is only 281 pages. For comparison purposes, over the last day and a half I have breezed through a book that had almost 400 pages. I just did not want One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to end - partly because I knew it was not going to end well, and partly because I couldn't bear to leave the characters.

Argh, I'm struggling, I knew I would! I want to talk about the darkness in this book which is chilling in the extreme. I want to tell you about the moments of hilarity that come out of nowhere and made me laugh out loud. I think you should know about the chilling social commentary that this book provides - showing the fine line between sanity and madness. But I honestly don't think I can do any of it justice.

McMurphy's struggle is seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a half-Indian who sympathises and understands McMurphy's desire to try and beat the system. Bromden's voice has moments of sanity and then will plunge into fog and disorientation which gives some indication of the pain and frustration that mental illness must force onto people who suffer it.

In the past I have made jokes about being an accountant, by saying that, although I do deal in numbers, I haven't had my personality lobotomy yet. Having read this book, those words will never again pass my lips. The treatments suffered by the inmates, including electroshock therapy and, in the worst cases, lobotomy, are described with harrowing honesty. I wanted to cry when I saw how many of the inmates were treated - what they had to go through for the sake of trying to cure them seemed absolutely unreal. (And can I say that it is positively barbaric the procedure of lobotomy has taken place in the UK as recently as 2001?!)

Okay, I'm starting to ramble so I'll close here. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a sensational read - honest, funny, harrowing. The characters and their fates are bitter-sweet in the most part, but you leave the book feeling a strange sense of hope. I desperately want you all to read this. It is easily the best book I've read in years - and it is one of the few books to move me to tears. Excellent.


  1. It's probably a good thing you haven't seen the film yet. I was just reading an article the other day about how films colour a book, and how after seeing the film you can't help but visualise the book with Jack Nicholson et al in their roles.

    Nice review. I'm looking forward to your next classic challenge!

  2. I first saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as a stage play at the tender age of 14. It wigged me out and wounded me so badly it was years before I was even willing to read the book. By then I was a Ken Kesey fan and so read it as part of his oeuvre and got more out of it. Still haven't seen the film. Not sure I could hack it. What a heartbreaker! Glad you dove in!

  3. So, I have a confession to make: I have a BA in English Language and Culture and I have never read this book or seen the movie. *pauses for exclamations of shock and horror* I know, it's a classic, but for some reason the classics I read for fun and for classes tended to veer towards the pre-1950's and the few classes I read that did have more current books tended to focus on British authors. I guess I'll have to make up for it. We have it at work and I've added it to my WBR list to be read after I finish all the books on my shelves.

    Great review though Amanda! And OMG they did lobotomies that recently in the UK? I wonder when the last one was over here.

  4. I, too, have been disappointed by many classics. I haven't read this one, but now I'll consider it. I have seen the movie (years ago) and I think I was too young. I don't remember much of it, and I don't think it left a big impression -- so I can probably read the book without being influenced by the movie. Thanks for the review.

  5. It's rare that a film of any book comes close to capturing the spirit or the real essence. And although there are some differences, I think the film is definitely worth seeing. It's not a huge departure (compared to say I Am Legend) and the terror, horror and moments of joy amidst the awful conditions are captured brilliantly by the all star cast. Now that you've read it, I'd definitely recommend watching the film.

  6. If you love the book, I heartily recommend that you not see the movie. It effectively lobotomizes the original story by removing all the social commentary that makes the book so chilling and moving. It's essentially craziness for craziness' sake.