I’d heard a lot said about Nathan Filer’s Costa Book Award 2013 winning ‘The Shock of the Fall’. I’d heard from book reviews that it was a good exposition of mental disorders, and I’d heard from my mum that it was ‘very, very sad’. So, as I buried my nose into its pages, I didn’t hunker down expecting an easy ride.
But an easy ride is, more or less, what I got. The Shock of the Fall is one of those books that is so well written you almost forget that you are reading at all. It also has those delightfully short chapters that make you feel that you are zipping through the book at an electric pace (whilst offering perfect pitstop opportunities for tea refuelling).
At the very core of the story is the death of Simon, the brother of Matthew, the central character (I don’t like to give away the plot, but this is in the blurb so I reckon I can get away with it). Not only does this drive the plot somewhat, but it also centralises grief as a major theme. You might, therefore, think that this book would be ‘very, very sad’, as my mum puts it. And it is true that at some points it is. But it is also interesting to see how Filer has each of his characters deal with this grief, and uplifting to watch as they learn to come to terms with it.
What I particularly admire about this book is Filer’s depiction of Matthew’s mental illness. Matthew is a 19 year old with schizophrenia. But schizophrenia, what it is, how it is treated, how Matthew deals with it, is not constantly addressed. It just snakes its way through the book, connected to everything but not at the heart of it all. By excluding these constant references to his illness, we are left free to get to know Matthew, without confining him to our implicit associations with a named condition. We see the complex interaction of factors – of his family, his upbringing, a traumatic life event, his inherent nature, his psychiatric treatments – we see how all of these sum up to create Matthew and his illness, and how these are not two easily definable, separate entities. For me, this deviation from the usual fictional depiction of a mentally ill character as little more than a list of symptoms torn straight from the DSM is what imbues the Shock of the Fall with a far greater truth value than many other books exploring the same theme.
I’ve probably made this book seem heavier than it is. It is true that it deals with difficult, harrowing subjects, but! This book draws you inside Matthew’s mind, where you sit and absorb all that he knows about himself. And at the end, when he quietly pushes you away, you leave with a lighter heart and a deeper understanding of what it is to have lost, to have been broken and to have, however fleetingly, reemerged into a happier existence. A solid, refreshing read. Authors take note: this is how to write a book, not about mental illness, but about people.