It could well be redubbed The Shock of the Win, because Nathan Filer and his debut novel The Shock of the Fall was the surprise winner at the recent Costa Book Awards, weighing into victory over much heavier contenders including Life Ater Life by Kate Atkinson.
The story of Matthew's descent into madness is powerfully wrought, the first person narrative constantly unsettling, because just how reliable a narrator can he be, sectioned under the Mental Health Act, often sedated to the edge of consciousness, and with a huge tragedy in his childhood to be fathomed and faced.
The tragedy is clear from the off, though the details are not, but somehow Matthew is implicated in the death of his older brother Simon, who has Down's (or Down as it is often known now) Syndrome. Trapped, cossetted and over-protected by his grief-stricken mother in the aftermath, his own grief subsumed by that of his parents and largely unacknowledged, it is clear that mental health issues are likely to brew for Matthew in the future.
The narrative in many ways reflects the chaotic nature of Matthew's life flitting from childhood, to moments when he lives independently in a flat, to episodes of hospitalized care on a mental health unit, to parts where the reader is well aware he is writing a book.
In a way The Shock of the Fall is a book that could only have been written as well as it has by an insider. Nathan Filer is a registered mental health nurse and still works as one, and it is the little things that the 'insider' knows that made the difference for me and had me nodding.
The free mugs from the drug reps. I'd add in diary straps, diary covers, name badge lanyards, post-it notes, biros, files, folders, bags... you name it the drug and baby milk companies will breeze into the surgery on a dull grey winter's day bearing nice shiny gifts and somehow... well a new diary cover cheers you up a bit. We'd then spend ages sticking labels over the names, but still, we had accepted them.
We think the patients don't notice, in fact it's one of the first things Matthew spots
The conversations, the repetitions and the monotony of in-patient life are perfectly pitched to reflect the reality. If you have never experienced it (and I sort of hope you haven't) reading The Shock of the Fall will give you a good idea.
The realities of being an inpatient are mind-numbing, this on top of the chemical mind-numbing also in progress. There is humiliation waiting to ambush the mental health patient around every corner. Nathan Filer doesn't exploit these (and I read and set aside, a.n.other book last year, also written by a health professional, which most certainly did, and to my mind in the worst possible way) but rather demonstrates how it feels from the patient's point of view to have your liberty put on hold, to have to queue for daily medicines, or submit to regular depot injections, to have to wile away hours and hours of tedium with other confused people.
Nathan Filer doesn't over-egg the pudding with 'issues'. There is much evidence that teenage marijuana use may lead to mental health problems, that schizophrenia can run in families... the intuitive reader will know of this and pick up the hints without being beaten around the head by the evidence. A few clues are scattered but the reader is left to draw their own conclusions.
The accounts of planning meetings are spot on. The atmosphere, the 'speak' and the 'outcomes' all very familiar but with the added bonus of insight into how the patient, or 'service user' as Matthew is sometimes known, actually experiences them.
If I have any picky literary misgivings, they surround the Creative Writing degree feel to this book, perhaps compounded by the knowledge that Nathan Filer is also a Creative Writing tutor.
I can't be the only one who can spot them a mile away??
The occasional tricksy layout of words on the page... the drawings ... the different fonts, and whilst I know to the writer there is method behind it all, and maybe they have something multi-dimensional to convey and this is a good way to lift the emotion and the moment off the page...and plenty of readers love them...I know all that, but somehow these all feel a bit last year now, and the book was definitely strong enough to stand on its own two feet without them.
That said, I don't want to detract from Nathan Filer's achievement and his wonderful Costa win because I know there was great rejoicing on the night, and The Shock of the Fall is a book that delineates something with clarity that many others have failed to do. We need books like this to be written every so often, I remember reading The Comforts of Madness by Paul Sayers years ago... One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest even longer ago, but times change and so do attitudes towards and the treatment of mental illness, and it is good to see it represented truthfully and transparently in fiction.
When Matthew, in a period of lucidity and with great insight reflects on his own illness, with it comes huge understanding for us and for him...
'We are selfish, my illness and I. We think only of ourselves. We shape the world around us into messages, into secret whispers spoken only for us...'
If you have read it I would love to know your thoughts...