Bad blogger. Very bad blogger. This is my first post in two weeks. Terrible blogging.
In my defence I’ve just left uni and moved back home. These last two weeks have been spent firstly enjoying my last few days as an undergrad, moving house, looking for temp work, and now, being on holiday with my family. It’s all been a bit full-on, really, but I’m having a great time getting sunburned (despite all efforts to the contrary) in Dorset.
Between all that, however, I did manage to read a couple of books this week. The book I’m going to talk about is quite interesting, as I had to cram read it – something I’m well-practiced at, thank you English Lit degree – before going to see the author give a talk on Thursday evening. So I’ll talk a little about that throughout.
Nathan Filer’s debut novel, The Shock Of The Fall was the winner of the Costa book prize, and is set in Bristol – so how could I not read it?
This is a book with several complex themes and events and characters and things. It deals quite intensely with themes of mental illness. Our narrator, Matthew, who blames himself for the death of his older brother when they were young, is nineteen when he decides to write his story. At the time he is suffering from something that is heavily suggested to be schizophrenia, and Filer has confirmed that this was his intention. His mother became over-protective, hypochondriacal and anxious following the death of his brother Simon, who was born with Down’s syndrome and had ‘a face like the moon’ (or something like that. A lovely line I can’t quite remember, because I don’t have the book handy. My bad!). It is not necessarily, however, a book about mental illness, or a book about grief. Filer captures the sense of a young man, or boy even, struggling through his family problems and growing up. It is a growing-up story, a story about closer, and yes, it talks about mental illness, but in such a way as to highlight and in some ways dismiss the stigma surrounding it. I’ll talk more about that below.
Things I liked
I’ll go straight into the stuff about mental illness, since I just talked about it above. Before his debut novel, Filer worked as a mental health nurse (I believe). As such, his ideas about how people, and particularly those in the mental health profession, treat others with mental health issues. For example, there is a moment quite early on in the book where this is made clear. Matthew is writing and asks one of the people helping at the centre, a young woman, if he can look something up (I think, in a dictionary? Sorry, very tired writing this). She isn’t sure if that’s allowed, so she asks a colleague, Steve, if it’s ok. Steve sort of laughs and tosses Matthew the book in a cool and off-hand way, with a heavy-handed wink with a tongue click that Matthew remembers and identifies him by (‘Click-click-wink’). Matthew talks about how yeah, so cool how he made that girl look stupid, yeah, we’re buddies, it’s no big deal – except by doing that you made it a fucking big deal, didn’t you Steve (obviously this is all paraphrased). In the talk we saw, Filer discussed a moment after he’d written the book, where he was working and found himself doing a similarly ‘twatty’ (his word) gesture to hand a patient a pen, and stopped and reflected for so long, thinking how, even though he knew about this, had written about it, he still felt a need to show that everything is no big deal, and in doing so made it a big deal. It’s observations like this, as well as his quiet jabs at the industry (mocking terms such as ‘service user’), that make this a worthy read, just in terms of the profession itself.
Next I want to talk about the narrative structure. It’s an interesting read in terms of chronology, but that’s just the kind of thing I like a lot of the time. Not everything is revealed to the reader, you know something bad has happened – you know Simon dies within the first chapter – and you know that our narrator had something to do with it. You know that it was not only what happened to Simon but how it happened that so deeply affected the family. It has a lot of cross-cutting and you will not always know exactly what is significant or important until it comes back, so it’s worth paying close attention.
Then there’s the actual format. The book itself is written almost entirely in first person, although there are two narrative strands to that first person narrative – one in normal font and another in a typeset made to look like that of a typewriter, to differentiate between Matthew’s monologue and the story he is actually typing up on the typewriter. As well as that there are selections of letters, some to Matthew and some from him to others.
The narrative voice is wonderful and captures this authentic, troubled, unreliable yet honest (even honest about being dishonest) boy, telling us his story exactly as he wants it to be told. Aside from just capturing the right tone of voice of a young man, this feeling of him telling us his story just the right way comes from little moments where he directly addresses the reader with phrases like ‘You’ve probably never met my dad’ and ‘I just realised you don’t even know what I look like’ (sic). In most other books this would annoy me, as it takes you out of the world of the book and reinstates you as an outsider looking in rather than someone just as involved as those it’s happening to.
The setting. It’s in Bristol. It’s got location namedropping, and I love that.
Things I didn’t like
If I hadn’t just read We Were Liars, in which there is a similar tactic of not revealing exactly what has happened to the reader, even though you know it’s something awful, you don’t know exactly what it is, and you know the narrator is in some way responsible for it, it might have been more hard hitting. But that’s not exactly Filer’s fault.
I wish we knew a little more about the mother’s illness.
Should I read this?
It definitely gets my recommendation. It’s not a difficult or long read, if you have a few hours to spare – according to Filer it’s only about 65,000 words (300 pages with a big font). The Shock Of The Fall has had reviews from critics that say things like ‘so good it’ll make you feel like a better person for reading it’, and I sort of agree. It’s enlightening, emotionally convincing and satisfying. Give it a read, it’ll make you think.
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The Book Depository
You can buy the book here: http://www.bookdepository.com/Shock-Fall-Nathan-Filer/9780007491452/?a_aid=SpidersLibrary
Because I am trying not to use Amazon in my own half-arsed protest-y way, I’d like to recommend to people that they check out The Book Depository, which is a great, user-friendly site with affordable books ranging from brand new releases to classics, and in many different editions at less-than brand new prices. As I am now officially an affiliate of The Book Depository, I gain a small commission if you use my affiliate link to buy books! Please do check it out, even if you don’t buy anything right now.