My illness and I
The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer
I picked up this book while stranded at Liverpool street train station after yet another one of my trains was cancelled, I’d been at a stag do for the weekend and I was hungover, grumpy, and needed something to take my mind off things. I haven’t had much time to read just because I wanted to recently. Reviewing books for people has taken over my life a little bit. I hadn’t heard of the book by name but when I turned it over and looked at the blurb I read this:
‘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 couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.’
Now this I had read before. I’m not sure where, but I had definitely read this and had my interest piqued once before. So I took the plunge, shelled out the £7.99 WHSmiths were asking for and decided to read it. I’d pretty much finished by the time I finally got home to Cambridge. It really is as un-put-down-able as they come. And my afternoon spent reading it made me realise the importance of taking the time to read for pleasure, which I really have been neglecting a little too much recently.
Anyway I digress, on with the review.
Nathan Filer, grew up near Bristol in the UK, and initially trained as a mental health nurse at the University of West England. Following this he worked a researcher in department of psychiatry at the University of Bristol and as a psychiatric nurse in several inpatient mental health facilities. Filer is currently employed as a lecturer in creative writing at Bath Spa University, as well as performing and writing for TV and Radio. In 2013, Filer published his first novel, The Shock of the Fall, which went on to win the 2013 Costa Book Awards for Best First Novel and Book of the Year.
In his debut novel Filer introduces the reader to Matthew Holmes, a 19-year-old mental health patient. In a bid to understand his own problems, Matthew turns to writing, writing his own story – this story forms the pages of The Shock of the Fall. Matthew’s memoirs start with what he sees as the beginning of his mental health issues – the ‘shock of the fall’ which led to the untimely death of his older sibling, Simon. Wracked by guilt over his death, even much later on his life, Matthew writes, sometimes on a computer at the community centre, other times on an old typewriter donated to him by his beloved grandmother ‘Nanny Noo’. The book is a fantastic amalgamation of drawings, letters, diagrams and passages of thought written with varying typefaces, presenting a fascinating yet harrowing image of one man’s descent into madness.
When I was a teenager I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which initiated my interest in novels written from unusual perspectives. Those of you who know me will no doubt be aware of this, I often recommend the book to people, and you will find the booked proudly positioned on my ‘Favourites’ page. Now, often when I am choosing a book to read I will be most drawn towards those which offer something a little different, be it a strange perspective, writing style or genre. So when flicked through the pages of The Shock of the Fall at Liverpool Street, I knew it was a book for me as soon as I saw the different typefaces, the scratchy drawings and randomly placed text. Needless to say it’s been a while since I have been touched by a novel in this way.
Firstly I would like to talk about Filer’s introduction; we meet Matthew [Matt], and are introduced to Simon through the first section of the book – The girl and her doll. This first chapter instantly captivated me. It is this point, the moment when Matthew first saw the young girl and her doll that all of Matt’s problems started, or at least, this is the beginning he has given us. There is something so mysterious and fascinating about this scene, a young boy, hiding around behind some bins, watching a mysterious girl hold a funeral for a small rag doll. I didn’t necessarily expect to find out the meaning behind this scene [even though I desperately wanted to] I was more expecting it to be a pitch to get the reader interested, and it worked. Eventually, I forget about the girl and her doll, or at least forget to remember to be interested in her, because as a reader you are given so much more to be interested in.
The main thing we are given to be interested in is of course Simon. I’ve already revealed that Simon died, and I don’t feel bad about unleashing that ‘spoiler’, because it’s not really a spoiler at all. The passage is written on the back of the book, and Matt lets us known about Simon’s death very early on. The reader is kept waiting to find out the circumstances of Simon’s death, however. Matt’s method of writing leaves a lot to the imagination, allowing the reader to form their own conclusions for an almost frustratingly long time. One thing that is made very clear is that Matt feels he is responsible for Simon’s death. Even though he really only lives through Matt’s thoughts and memories, Simon is central to the book. At its core, everything is about Simon, and the effect of Simon’s death on those around him, predominantly, but not only, Matt.
For Matthew’s mother, grief was most easily dealt with by keeping Matt at home, close to her. She mothered him, or tried to. In reality this made things even more difficult for Matt, a young boy struggling to cope after the death of his older brother. Matt resents his mother for keeping him home from school and for stopping him from socialising with his friends, effectively making him into the ‘weird’ kid.
For Matt, grief is far more complicated; it is on-going, all-encompassing and further intensified not only by his guilt but something much, much darker – an illness which ‘slithers through the branches’ of his family tree. In Matt’s story, his grief, and indeed his illness are epitomised in his ‘special project’ a combination ant-farm/science-project:
‘Nanny looked around my living room; her face was pale. I think she needed to sit down, but there wasn’t any space. The whole floor, the chairs, the table, every surface was taken over. I had filled hundreds of bottles and jars with earth, connecting groups of them together with plastic tubing. The Hydrogens were already up and running – they’re the easiest to build – a single proton and a single electron. I had made ten of these because we are made of ten per cent hydrogen. The Oxygens took more work, two electrons in the first shell, and six in the outer shell. Then I would pair them up, colliding a pair of electrons from each to make the covalent bonds. This often smashed the glass, so most of the ants had escaped. The carpet was crawling with them.’
This ‘special project’, is Matt’s way of attempting to recreate his brother. He has combined the memory of Simon wanting an ant farm, with some knowledge he picked up in a school science class – everyone is made of the same atoms. In Matt’s mind he must therefore contain a part of Simon, and so Simon must still exist. It is this point in the book that the extent of Matthew’s illness, the terrifying realisation comes out in full. When his grandmother sees his ‘special project’, and realises that Matthew has been singled out by the same illness which claimed her brother: ‘Nanny pressed a tissue to her lips, “we need to get you some help.”’
By writing his story this is exactly what Matt is trying to do, to help himself.
Matt’s writing perfectly traces his journey through the mental health system. The changing typefaces and scratchy drawings seem to mirror the times he is writing about. When Matt writes about his time locked away inside a mental institution he does it while locked up inside his flat, ignoring the persistent knocks of his community support workers:
‘KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
Knock knock KNOCK KNOCK. They are outside, standing at my door, they are peering through the letter box, they are listening to me type. They know I’m here.’
It is while locked within his apartment that Matt revisits the time when Simon completely monopolised his life. While inside the institution, thoughts of Simon regularly invaded his mind, and Simon himself often came to visit:
‘I didn’t even get out of bed. I just leant over the side and slowly lifted the overhanging sheets. The giggle turned into a squeal of delight. “I knew it was you.” His face was painted orange with black stripes, and the tip of his nose was a smudge of black with lines drawn for whiskers. “I’m a tiger,” he grinned. “Do I look like a tiger?”’
Even as Matt writes his story, Simon is still with him. Towards the end of the book, when Matt, meets once again with Annabelle, the girl he witnessed having a funeral for her doll all those years ago, Simon is there:
‘Simon was in the movement of her hair. He was in the little yellow coat as it billowed in the wind.’
Matt meeting with Annabelle once again was a perfect beginning for the end of his story. In talking to Annabelle, he begins to tie up his loose endings and realises what he needs to do in order to let go of Simon once and for all.
Throughout Matt’s story when he writes about his illness he repeats the same words and phrases. The illness is a part of him, and so he often refers to ‘My illness and I’, as though through everything he does, his illness is there with him, and there is no escaping it. With an illness such as Matt’s there really is no way of escaping it, but it seems as though, once you have reached the end of the book Matt is writing from a place where he has finally come to accept his illness.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of The Shock of the Fall. I really don’t feel as though I can recommend this book highly enough. I have already suggested it to a number of my friends, and will continue to do so until I have several people with whom to discuss it. A huge would recommend. Whoever you are, you will not regret it.