One Saturday in May of last year I had the pleasure of hearing Nathan Filer read from his debut novel at a local Readers Event. The Shock of the Fall, which had been published just two days previously, was already garnering praise from all quarters and it was evident that its author was more than pleased, but nevertheless a bit bemused, at its reception. It was immediately apparent that this was a book I was going to want to read. After all, how can you not be intrigued when the passage you hear begins:
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 a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.
Well you wouldn’t be, would you?
Unfortunately, I was so certain that this was a book I was going to want not only read but also discuss that I put it on one of my reading group lists as my next selection and as a result have only just got round to engaging further with both Simon and the narrator of this book, his younger brother, Matthew.
We very soon discover that Matthew is not going to be the most reliable of narrators so perhaps we should take his initial assessment of himself with a pinch of salt.
I should say that I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I’m not. So when it was my turn to cover my eyes and count to a hundred –I cheated.
However, there is that in his opening statement which should begin to trigger questions in the reader’s mind. What adult is going to see cheating at hide and seek as a major moral breakdown? Well, in Matthew’s case, one who has suffered from so many other breakdowns that his perspective is no longer as clear as it might be, because when we first meet him Matthew is receiving treatment for what it gradually becomes apparent is schizophrenia, possibly exacerbated by what happens to Simon, but also clearly a trait that has appeared in his family before.
Gradually, Matthew builds a picture for us of the events that led up to Simon’s death and its aftermath in terms of the breakdown that followed in his family life. What is remarkable about the book, however, is the way in which Filer allows us to experience something of the confusion in Matthew’s mind through the style in which the novel is written. Although we are never less than certain what is going on we can still experience the changes in his behaviour as he withdraws from the programme (medical and social) intended to help him stabilise. In part this is because much of the book is written in very short sections and it possible to indicate a change in mood or reaction to a medication (or lack thereof) in the turn of a page. But it is also due to the way in which Filer has caught some fundamental characteristic about Matthew’s voice and that characteristic stays with him throughout.
This may well be beginning to sound like a seriously depressing read and when I add that as well as dealing with death, mental illness and family breakdown the novel is also concerned with the wanton destruction of public services for those who suffer from mental ill health I am almost certainly confirming that opinion in your minds. However, that simply isn’t the case. There is a great deal in the book that is really uplifting and a lot that is just downright funny. Sometimes, of course, there is a wry edge to that humour. Filer has a knack of putting his finger on a truth about either the illness or the services that makes you smile at the same time as making you wince. Anyone who has had anything to do with people suffering from schizophrenia will recognise the veracity of Matthew’s claim that this illness has a work ethic only too readily.
Filer is also very good at drawing heart-warming portraits of some of his characters. Who wouldn’t want to know Matthew’s Nanny Noo?
My grandmother (Mum’s mum, the one we call Nanny Noo) reads books by Danielle Steele and Catherine Cookson, and whenever she gets a new one the first thing she does is flip straight to the back to read the last page.
She always does that…
Nanny Noo made nice food. She is one of those people who tries to feed you the moment you walk trough the door, and doesn’t stop trying to feed you until the moment you leave. She might even make you a quick ham sandwich for your journey.
It’s a nice way to be. I think people who are generous with food have a goodness about them.
Whatever lies behind it, whether it is food or her need to know what happens in a story before she reads it, Nanny Noo certainly has a goodness about her.
And there is a lot of goodness about this book as well. Yes, there is heartbreak and there is anger as you are faced with the senseless way in which the state deals with the needs of those who are challenged by mental ill health. (One in four of us, remember will have mental health problems at some point.) But ultimately this is a book about the successes that it is still possible for anyone in a seemingly desperate position to find in their lives. Those successes may be small in the eyes of some but that is their inability to appreciate what really counts. For Matthew and his family every step forward is one that isn’t backwards and deserves to be celebrated as such. If you don’t come away from this novel with your heart gladden I will be very surprised.