On paper, Martha should be happy. She’s a talented writer and married to a man whose love and patience know no bounds. So why is Martha so troubled and in conflict with everyone? And why can she never hold down a job? In Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, we go inside the mind of a woman suffering from undiagnosed mental illness and get to feel the darkness and self-loathing. As devastating as this sounds, Sorrow and Bliss is more than tragedy, Mason’s acerbic wit and portrayal of a sweet on-off love-story make this read more than a sad one.
Martha’s chaotic upbringing in a Bohemian home with a mediocre artist mother and a second-rate poet father certainly hasn’t helped her mental state. Neither has her mother’s endless drinking and aloofness. The safe harbour is the sofa of her father’s study where she frequently curls up just to be. A love-hate relationship defines Martha’s interaction with her sister Irene, who somehow seems to succeed wherever Martha fails, while still complaining about it.
Martha’s love life is no less complicated. One husband comes and goes before she settles on kind, loving childhood friend Patrick. What, on paper, seems like a perfect match turns out to be something way more complicated.
‘Martha, he said afterwards, lying next to me. ‘Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That’s what life is. It’s only the ratios that change’.
You might be wondering where humour comes into this story. Mason’s portrayal of west London middle class life is spot on with a particularly entertaining tension between the laissez faire household of Martha’s family and that of their relatives in a grand Belgravia mansion.
It took a few pages before I got the point of this book but, once I did, Mason’s writing convinced me to the point where it felt like something she herself had been through. And although it’s hard to like, or indeed trust, the protagonist of this book, it’s impossible not to feel for her.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason is published by Widenfeld & Nicholson, 352 pages.