When hubby and I were renovating the money pit we now call home we got to know a fair few local tradesmen. A year later we bought an investment flat and mostly asked the same tradesmen back again. In the meantime one of their wives had self-immolated. Even typing it gives me goose bumps. There I am, standing in a soon-to-be-kitchen, while a man I barely know tells me how one evening he was watching tv with his wife, their two kids tucked up in bed, when she says she thinks she’ll go for a walk (she’s been stuck at home with the kids all day). She walks to a petrol station, buys a can of petrol and a box of matches (you’re not committing hari-kari are you love, jokes the attendant); then walks across the railway track to waste-ground, douses herself with petrol, and strikes a match – so the police tell him later that evening. His wife was schizophrenic and (secretly) had stopped taking her medication.
Why would anyone choose to kill themselves in such a horrific way? I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through her mind; how a schizophrenic might think.
Nathan Filer, on the other hand, can imagine it (though as a registered mental health nurse, he has a professional advantage). The Shock of the Fall, his debut novel and winner of the Costa Book of the Year in 2011, is narrated by Matthew Homes, a teenage schizophrenic who communes with his dead brother, Simon.
The book explores issues of grief and mental health, and Filer sets out his stall from the start: Matt’s self-loathing, Simon’s continuing presence. “I should say that I am not a nice person,” is the opening line, and a few pages later of Simon that, “in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.”
But this is more than an ‘issues’ novel. The reader is drawn into Matt’s world. The first person narration is important, of course, because we experience everything directly from Matt’s perspective. And there’s the central premise of the novel, which is that Matt is physically typing the story, a premise/process complemented by the novel’s graphical layout: a change of location signalled by a change of font; traditional typeface interweaved with ‘handwriting’ and images; and ‘distractions’ in the form of hospital letters and definitions of medical conditions.
By the end we have come to understand Matt. We understand how he can “get used to having Simon around. It takes time to adjust, and time to adjust when he’s gone,” we understand the story is not “a keepsake” so much as his way of “finding a way to let go;” most of all we understand that we “don’t know the ending” to the story – Matt’s story – because for him “it’s a beginning.”
*** Highly recommended.