Some time ago I read an advance copy of The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (HarperCollins). When I first read it, I wasn’t sure if I’d write about it but it has just been released in NZ, and I saw a pile in the shop on Friday and thought, “Oh, that book…”. I hadn’t forgotten it at all, and in fact, I like it better now than when I first read it – by which I mean that I have recovered from the shock of reading it, the sense of helpless falling, the fear of a hard landing, it induces in the reader. It is very good, you understand, and important and so well written (especially for a first novel, which sounds like back-handed praise, but you know what I mean – a writer inhabiting his very own voice from the (published) start is a rare thing…), but it is also a hard book to read.
The story, told by his older brother, Matthew, of young Simon and their family, on holiday by the sea, staying in a caravan. Simon is special and loved and then he is dead. His brother needs to tell us about him and life without him:
“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”
Matthew then tells us the story of the family without Simon, the way they all struggle against each other while clinging together, you think this is what the book is about. Slowly you start to realise that Matt is not just grief-stricken, not only the surviving child of desperately sad, flailing parents who are barely coping themselves, but something else is happening to him, is part of him, at once ‘other‘ to who he is, but also, who he is.
Filer was a psychiatric nurse in Britain, and his writing about a young man’s journey into mental illness has both compassion and credibility. We too become desperately sad, for Simon, for Matthew, for their parents but Filer is able to leaven the harsh realities of NHS psychiatric social workers, day clinics and hospitals with Matthew’s clever and funny observations, and ultimately, to leave us, and Matthew, with a small sense of hope. This is cleverly done: Matthew was probably always going to become very unwell – the chemistry of his brain is the way it is – but how he thinks about Simon, and what happened to Simon, can be a treasure that comforts him and not something rotten and corrosive…
Despite my warnings of hardness and sadness (and let us just glance sideways at the whole ‘what is the point of easy (good) literature’ debate – and not enter it), you really should read this inventive and memorable book.