Note: I received a free copy of this book from Online Book Club in exchange for an honest review. You can check out both the novel and other reviews here.
“It’s like trying to swim in an ocean of black gelatin on a completely overcast night. I have to paddle as hard as I can just to keep from sinking, and no matter how hard I paddle and kick, I don’t get anywhere. Not that there’s anywhere to go, because the ocean is endless. There’s no way out — no hope. And I’m so tired — exhausted all the time.”
That is an excerpt taken from the prologue of Exit The Labyrinth: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression; Its Onset and Aftermath, a novel that I recently finished reading. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of memoirs, but this book…what can I possibly say about this incredible book? I find myself, for once in my life, quite at a loss for words. Every page had me more entranced than the last, I never wanted to put it down.
The story focuses on a woman in her forties, Margo. After a family emergency, she is forced to go back to her childhood home for a short time, an idea very frightening to her. You see, while she loved her family, for some reason every time Margo entered that house, she felt panicked, often suffering anxiety attacks and feeling cut off from everyone else, even crazy. But she doesn’t know why this is! We explore this concept and more through years of therapy, putting pieces of the puzzle that is Margo’s childhood together, trying to get to the root of her depression. What memories is she suppressing and why? Will she ever find the key to this labyrinth?
Stephanie Kay Bendel has an exceptional ability to relate with her readers. You are there with Margo through every step of her journey, experiencing all of the emotions, or lack thereof, that she does. I’ve never read such empathy in a novel before. While I wanted to read long into the night, I more than once had to force myself to put the story away as I found myself too immersed. Margo’s emotions became mine, and as the novel has its dark moments, I had to give myself breaks. But it felt like torture to put it down for even a second.
You quickly find yourself as desperate as our protagonist to find the missing puzzle pieces of her life. Bendel is so brilliantly descriptive that it is difficult not to put yourself in Margo’s shoes, sharing her emotions and anxieties. For example, her sense of embarrassment when her family is making up limericks for fun, and she can’t think of one. She’s a published author and yet her imagination seems to fail her when she most needs it. Her sense of shame when saying something that she means to be funny, but comes out as mean. “In the Bible, there are stories about people who’re possessed by the devil. Maybe I’m one of them,” she wonders, unable to explain why she says the things she does. Even when she worries about her brother, who is always forgetting his wallet, I felt the need to go and check mine. Bendel gets into the reader’s head like none other.
Margo has this need to be perfect, this unrealistic standard that she holds herself to. She questions everything. When she discovers that she stores her silverware in a different order than the rest of her friends and family, she feels stupid, as if she’s missing something obvious. Why isn’t she normal? This is something that I can deeply relate to.
But while we suffer with Margo, we also experience her elated moments, her moments of discovery and joy. The end of this novel will have you clutching your chest, feeling content in a way you never expected to. You’ll have ‘Aha!’ moments as events unfold and memories piece themselves together. And along the way, you won’t only learn more about Margo, but more about yourself. This novel is written in such an honest, empathetic way that you will discover things about yourself without even trying!
Margo’s story is not told chronologically, which makes it feel more like a novel than a memoir, and I found very few formatting/grammatical errors. Margo refers to her parents as “Momma” and “Daddy”, even as an adult, and while I initially found this awkward and out of place, I quickly adapted as I learned Margo’s voice. It doesn’t take long to get sucked into the incredible journey of this strong woman and it will leave you breathless. I happily rate this book a perfect 5/5 stars, and I hope to see more of Bendel’s work in the future. I will definitely be recommending this novel to all of my fellow bookworms. I would also like to add that I think anyone who has depression or anxiety would really enjoy and find comfort in this story.
You can check it out on Online Book Club here, and see what others thought about it!