A well-deserved Costa Book of the Year winner! The Shock of the Fall is a heart-warming, funny, wise and convincing portrayal of a young boy’s descent into mental illness, from an author who’s seen it all in his job as a mental health nurse. ‘I should say that I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I’m not.’ The opening line of The Shock of the Fall, sets the stage for the sad tale of Matthew, a nineteen year-old, pot smoking school drop-out with severe psychological problems, looking back at his childhood. A sort of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for mental illness, with a slightly more adult tone.
Schizophrenia runs in Matthew’s family like a snake that ‘slithers through the branches of our family tree.’ But it is the trauma of his brother Simon’s death that triggers his descent into debilitating mental illness. Ten-year old Down syndrome sufferer Simon dies early on in the novel, only later are we told of his younger brother Matthew’s role in his death.
Pity Matthew’s exhausted, depressed mother with ‘her little yellow pills […] which took the edge off’, who at times looks ‘as though balanced on a cliff edge.’ Following Simon’s death, Matthew is home-schooled by his mum. There are mysterious doctor visits and hushed conversations behind closed doors. Things happen and decisions are made that the nine-year-old boy doesn’t, or chooses not to, understand.
At 17, against the will of his parents, Matthew moves into a decrepit flat with his friend Jacob, another down-and-out’er. As the sole carer for his handicapped mother, Jacob has plenty of traumas of his own. Their clumsy friendship is one of the truly moving parts of this novel. While Matthew drifts away from his parents, Nanny Noo, his maternal grandmother, shows up every other Thursday, with bags of food, a tolerant mind and oceans of love, never judging, only caring. It’s like you want to give her a huge hug!
Things go from bad to worse for Matthew, as he gets increasingly ill. Filer brilliantly describes the terrible side effects of his medication, the every day monotony: ‘I live a Cut & Paste kind of life’, and the dark shadow of guilt and loss that hangs over Matthew’s existence.
I want to talk about the difference between living and existing, and what it was to be kept on an acute psychiatric ward for day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day…
A daily schedule of smoking, medication, sleep, more smoking and decaffeinated coffee drunk out of mugs provided by the Drug Reps with ‘the brands of medication we hate, stamped all over them.’
By now, you might not be very tempted to read The Shock of the Fall, but please don’t be turned off by its grim subject matter. It is a fabulous, accessible novel which you will gulp down! Filer somehow manages to make it an uplifting, at times very funny read, with characters we grow to care deeply about. Compulsive reading and a sure bestseller!
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer is published by The Borough Press, 307 pages.