The Shock of the Fall ~ Nathan Filer

str2_ma_1901_p14a Shock Of The Fall Costa Winner 2013One 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.

19 thoughts on “The Shock of the Fall ~ Nathan Filer

  1. Great review! I read this book earlier this year and enjoyed it, but unfortunately I was left feeling a little underwhelmed by it – probably because my expectations were so high after reading glowing reviews and the book getting a lot of press coverage. But I agree with what you’ve said in your review – even though it’s a sad book, I found it quite uplifting too.

    1. That can so often be the case, Gemma, can’t it? I’ve certainly read books that I have been left wondering what everyone has made such a fuss about. If I’d come to them of my own accord I would probably have enjoyed them much more.

  2. Quite a trick to pull off, writing an uplifting novel about mental health and a very good way to get it talked about. Excellent review, Alex. I must pull this out of my tbr pile.

    1. Do, Susan, I’m sure this is a novel that you would appreciate. He’s also worth going to hear speak if you ever get the opportunity.

  3. I’ve just talked my friend into reading this with me — it’s called Where the Moon Isn’t in the US, not a title I’m crazy about, but never mind — and I’m really looking forward to it. Everything I’ve read about it says that it manages to be both sad and funny, AND it is about mental illness (also my fave). Can’t wait.

    1. It should also make you angry, Jenny, at the way in which mental health is underplayed in respect of health services. I’m sorry about the change in title, especially as I can’t see what it has to do with the book.

      1. I am terrible about picking up on recent novels and this is a book I am grateful to you for bringing to my attention. I recently read Panopticon by Jenny Fagan which was a very interesting novel that I would not have read but for your blog.

        1. Ian, I think you would really enjoy this. There is a blend of hard hitting reality and quirky point of view that I think is right up your street. I’m so glad you enjoyed ‘Panopticon’. I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been on my book group list yet I think it was one of the highlights of my reading last year. I must check if there is a new book from Fagan on the horizon. If so, I shall certainly want to read it.

          1. Yes, I thought Panopticon a brave and challenging book. I liked that Anais was sometimes pretty alienating – which made her believable. I laughred out loud after reading her comment about mulled wine!

  4. Coincidentally I was just reading a piece this author wrote in The Guardian about book cover blurbs. I will have to look for this book (I appreciate Jenny posting the American title).

    1. Do read it, Lisa. I think you will appreciate it. Which is more than I do where the new title is concerned. I just can’t figure out how it fits.

  5. I suspect it would be hard for me to read this book and not get angry about the decline of health services for people with mental illness. We don’t talk about those conditions much, they get somehow pushed aside in the media until a celebrity comes forward and admits they are sufferers. Kudos to Filer therefore for being brave in tackling this in a novel

    1. Sometimes there are books that you know you simply can’t read because of the emotions that they will stir in you. The Booker long listed ‘Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is one such where I’m concerned because of the memories I have of the aftermath of my father’s suffering as a FEPOW. I think, though, that you might get away with this one simply because of the tone in which Filer writes. I’m sure, however, that it was written from that same anger you would feel because he has and still does work as a mental health nurse and has first hand experience of what he describes.

  6. This sounds like an interesting read; in some ways we’ve come much further that books are written about this subject but in others we’ve gone backwards in providing the right services for those suffering. Thanks for a great review.

    1. It isn’t just interesting, Cleopatra, it is also really engaging. Filer has a very individual narrative voice and although the book tackles a really difficult subject for much of the time you will have a smile on your face while you are reading it.

  7. At first I thought, oh this sounds like Tryon’s horror novel The Other but nope, not even close. I must agree that beginning sentence does suck one in. What did your reading group think of it? Did you get lots of good discussion?

    1. We did, especially prompted by one of our member whose daughter has had extensive experience of the provision (or otherwise) for those with mental health problems. Jen’s daughter is bipolar rather than schizophrenic but in respect of the services available it is pretty much the same difference. As far as Jen was able to judge it was a very accurate picture.

  8. Ooh I have been hovering over this one, uncertain whether to read it or not. I want to because mental health issue books are generally up my street, but I hold back because I am sort of picky and have strong desires concerning the way said books are written. I don’t want to let any poor, unsuspecting author into that kind of trap! Great review – certainly gives me a much clearer idea of the novel now and what I might be choosing.

    1. I shouldn’t hover any longer, Litlove. Filer has worked in the system for a long time and really knows what he is writing about. He also has a greater sense of compassion than many people who tackle the subject, but never lets that drop over into the maudlin.

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