There seems to be a little bit of a theme running through the books I’ve been reading recently: namely, mental health, and how the protagonist deals with their own ill health. The last book I reviewed was The Memory Book by Rowan Coleman, which dealt with Alzheimer’s, and now I have just finished reading The Shock of The Fall, a bittersweet and moving story about a man who has been committed to a psychiatric ward in the local hospital. I’ve now also started reading Elizabeth is Missing, another narrative about dementia. This hasn’t been deliberate, but it’s sure been interesting!
I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he never was the same after that.
The Shock of the Fall was written by Nathan Filer, a registered mental health nurse. This is part of what attracted me to the book; I was interested to see how having that experience of taking care of mentally ill patients day in, day out would help facilitate writing a book from the point of view of someone who often refers to himself as ‘mental’ and ‘crazy.’ The book follows the story of Matthew Homes, a teenager who struggles with mental illness and whose tragic past, including the untimely death of his big brother, Simon, continues to haunt him.
Perhaps because Matthew’s trauma occurred when he was a young boy, and because it then influenced every part of his life, he speaks with quite a childish voice and uses simple, straightforward language. Matthew’s story is written on a computer or sometimes a typewriter, and he always accompanies his own words with pictures and illustrations, much like a child. He identifies his illness almost as a another person or entity that shares and lives life with him. However, despite his childish manner of communicating, he has a belief in the theory that all the atoms in the universe have also been part something else entirely in the past –
These are the things we learnt.
We learnt about atoms.
This illness and me.
I was thirteen.
“Billions of years ago exploding stars sent atoms hurtling through space and we’ve been recycling them on Earth ever since. Except for the occasional comet, meteor, some interstellar dust, we’ve used exactly the same atoms over and over since the Earth was formed. We eat them, we drink them, we breathe them, we are made of them. At this precise moment each of us is exchanging our atoms with everyone else, and not just with each other, but with other animals, trees, fungi, moulds -”
It is this belief in this rather sophisticated scientific theory that leads him to see – and feel – his brother Simon everywhere. He hears him in the wind, sees him in the air, and feels him nearby. To Matthew, Simon is never truly gone, because his atoms are everywhere, a wonderful coping mechanism but also a devastating side-effect to his illness. It also makes fascinating reading.
Matthew is quite an unreliable narrator, as is to be expected, but it’s his outlook on this notion that is quite refreshing. He is aware that his own perceptions and memories can’t be trusted, and he often points this out. He is fully aware and accepting that he is “mentally unwell” and understands that he needs to be careful not to relapse into bad habits or miss his medication.
I don’t know why it was this day I decided to follow him. Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it was another day.
He often points out that getting the story exactly right doesn’t matter, and it makes sense, especially in understanding the story. In order to understand the narrator and how he thinks and feels when he’s battling schizophrenia, reality more often than not doesn’t come into it. It’s about understanding why he thinks, and feels, and remembers, and copes the way he does. If reality and sense came into it, this novel just wouldn’t be what it is. The treat here is that Nathan Filer has helped us understand the human condition – and one human condition that is often under-represented and misunderstood.
Nathan Filer also does a beautiful job of creating the characters of Matthew Homes’ parents. His mum and dad are obviously hit hard by the premature death of one of their sons and the slow deterioration of the other. I won’t go into detail here about what happens with them in the novel – I don’t want to give everything away in one review! – but it is worth reading the book for this exploration of the different ways in which one family copy with familial tragedy.
As is often needed with tragic stories, the narrative is punctuated throughout with humour and provides relief from the heartache and confusion. Matthew’s frankness about himself is quite hilarious, and it keeps you going through a book that might otherwise be a bit too sad to bear. Hearing himself refer to where he lives as the ‘Crazy Crazy NutsNuts ward’ gives you that urge to cringe and laugh simultaneously – something special in and of itself.
Matthew…suffers from command hallucinations, which he attributes to a dead sibling. Crazy shit, eh? Problem is he’s been known to interpret said hallucinations as an invite to off himself….he sits alone in his flat, tapping away endlessly on a typewriter his grandmother gave him, which if you think about it, is a bit mental in itself.
The book was so much more than I thought it would be – it was a perfectly balanced tale laced with humour, sadness, wit, and philosophical musing. The book forces laughter from your throat at the same time as breaking your heart, little by little. And while you’re always on the outside of the story looking in, Nathan Filer is amazingly skilled at making you empathise with Matthew and see the world through his eyes – if only for a little while.
This book won Costa Book of the Year award – and I can see why! Have you read the book? Please let me know what you thought of it in the comments below!