I am rather late to the party with Nathan Filer’s debut novel, we flirted (the book and I not the author, just to clarify) with each other around the time that it won the Costa, and as soon as it came out in paperback I bought it, yet the subject of mental health was one that always worries me with a book and so I held off. However when my book group chose it I was really rather excited to be finally getting to read about it, and then I was slightly cross with myself for having not read it sooner – isn’t that just the way?
The Shock of the Fall is really two stories combined, both told by Matthew, in the present Matthew is a young man with Schizophrenia (‘I have an illness, a disease with the shape and sound of a snake. Whenever I learn something new, it learns it too … My illness knows everything I know.’) and who has been sectioned and is dealing with the current mental health system. The other story is one which we get glimpses of, never quite alternating, as we read on and relates back to Matthews childhood and the death of his brother. As we follow Matthew’s narrative not only are we given insight into the system and how it is, or isn’t, working for him; we also follow the fallout, grief and guilt of a family after the death of one so young and the circumstances around it.
Both parts of this story are handled wonderfully. Firstly there is Matthew’s now as he tries to get to grips with his illness, the system that he has to be in, the community around him and the drugs which he must take. All these things that he feels at odds with and in many cases are things that he has no control over, how is anyone meant to get a hold on that and indeed their own illness at the same time? Filer not only looks at that but looks at how the people around the person with the mental illness deal with it to. Matthew’s mother, who I thought may have had undiagnosed issues, not so well, his father who just tries to get on with it as best he can and Nanny Noo (Matthew’s grandmother) who does all she can to help. I found these reactions and the interweaving relationships with them, Matthew and each other beautifully drawn if not always comfortable to read.
As I mentioned before I am always dubious about books that deal with moral issues and in particular mental health, which is why I don’t often read it. This is mainly because as someone who had had depression on and off, with extremes both at the end of 2010 (when my marriage broke down) and last autumn (after Gran died) and so, not making it all about me honestly as every depression is different from one person to the next, I have a very visceral reaction to the subject. Disability, of whatever kind, can either be done so well it makes me want to cry with joy that someone has dealt with it in such a way or it can be done in a way which is almost like using it as a way to sell the novel, almost making money out of the issue itself.
Filer deals with it deftly. Some reviewers might put this down to the fact that Filer was a mental health nurse which to me does a disservice to how good Filer’s writing is. Firstly, you’ve still got to be able to write bloody well to turn what you know into fiction secondly Filer was the nurse not the patient whose head he gets into so well. There are many standout moments for me but two remain; one the feeling of utter boredom in a ward and from the effects of the drugs you are on to make yourself ‘normal’, the other the lack of control you have over your own life.
‘Service Users. Um – Patients.’
They have a bunch of names for us. Service Users must be the latest. I think there must be people who get paid to decide this shit.
I thought about Steve. He’s definitely the sort to say Service User. He’d say it like he deserved a knighthood for being all sensitive and empowering. Then I imagined him losing his job – and to be honest, that caught me off guard. I don’t hate these people. I just hate not having the choice to get rid of them.
Also the other major strand to the book has nothing to do with mental health and is it here that some of the most touching and heartbreaking writing can be found, and that is saying something because Matthew’s present has those moments too. As I mentioned earlier not only is Matthew a young man who is suffering from a mental illness he is one suffering from grief and how to cope with it. As we go back with Matthew we learn of the wonderful, and often idyllic, childhood that he had with his brother Simon until a trip away that changed it all. I won’t give any spoilers, and if like me you try and guess it you will think you are right but you’d be wrong, but I found the sections discussing his love for his sibling incredibly moving, and the grief even more so.
Shhh, shhh. It’ll be ok. That’s what he said as he placed me down outside our caravan, before running to get Mum. I might not have been clear enough – Simon really wasn’t strong. Carrying me like that was the hardest thing he’d ever done, but still he tried to reassure me. Shhh, shhh. It’ll be okay. He sounded so grown-up, so gentle and certain. For the first time in my life it truly felt like I had a big brother. In the few short seconds whilst I waited for Mum to come out, as I cradled my knee, stared at the dirt and grit in the skin, convinced myself I could see the bone, in those few short seconds – I felt totally safe.
It takes a skilled writer to make a story which appears and hide within another one to read naturally, it also takes a skilled writer to make both a present and past narrative as interesting as the other. Filer does this and also, rather wonderfully, makes us care about them in equal measure. He also does something with the style of the book which for me made the book go from great to brilliant. As we read The Shock and the Fall we come across doodles, the text will change from computerised to handwritten, hand written to typewriter, type writer back to computerised as Matthew writes all his thoughts down wherever he can. There are also wonderful and funny chapter titles like ‘Please Stop Reading This Over My Shoulder’ so that with the texture of the different texts (which seem to take on different tempos of his thoughts) and these titles we actually feel that we are in Matthew’s head, as well as tones of despair, rage and humour, making the novel all the more powerful.
The Shock of the Fall is a rare novel which from the outset looks like it is talking about mental health; those who suffer from it, those around them and the system which we have for ‘dealing’ with it, yet in actual fact is a book about life, death, being different and how we cope with it all. It is also a novel which will make you laugh, cry, be angry and most importantly question what we mean by normality and how we should, or indeed shouldn’t, define it. It chimed with me and I will certainly be looking forward to whatever Nathan Filer writes next.