In June the Oxfam Muswell Hill book group read and discussed The Shock of the Fall, the Costa Award winning debut novel by former mental health nurse and present day creative writing lecturer Nathan Filer. It is a narrative of Matt, a schizophrenic 19 year old.
The style of the novel is best viewed as a type of writing therapy for the narrator and features different fonts depending on whether Matt is writing on the computer at the day centre or on the typewriter bought for him by his grandmother Nanny Noo, as well as handwritten notes, some doodle like drawings and official letters from the local mental health team. Whilst the typographic novelty was certainly something that made the book stand out on an award short list, we felt it was a gimmick that actually added nothing fundamental to the understanding of either Matt’s psychology within the broader tree of his family or the state of the UK’s mental health provision, which were the two things that Filer seemed to want to engage the reader in.
Matt is a self aware narrator, however biased his view point might be when he is ill, and tells the reader that despite his best intentions at honesty we should be aware of the limitations of memoir and memory. One of the most telling ways that Matt describes his life is that it is a ‘cut and paste kind of life’.
An unexpected enjoyment of The Shock of the Fall was its humour, not nearly as black as the mental health plot might lead us to assume, which usually arises when Matt mocks himself and/or the psychiatric patient related jargon-filled world he inhabits. For instance, he notes that he is “clinically” being observed writing to us: ‘Patient is engaging in writing behaviour.” “Between you and me, I might take a shit in a bit. Is that engaging in shitting behaviour?’ The sheer ennui for patients of day after day on a psychiatric ward is also successfully imparted and can be taken as directly based on Filer’s observation as a mental health nurse.
One point we did discuss was the symbolism of the title: The Shock of the Fall could be taken to mean any number of actual inter-related physical falls in the book, it could read as referring to the commonly termed “descent” into ill mental health of any number of family members and it also conjures up thoughts of biblical fall from Eden with all its associated judgment of human weakness: the fact that Matt describes his illness as having the shape and sound of a snake with knowledge as credence to the biblical analogy.
We thought that the author’s greatest success in the novel was his presentation of Matt’s family and in particular felt great affection for the warm, flawed three dimensional characters of his mother, father, grandmother and his dead brother. What’s that? We didn’t mention the dead brother……Let Matt introduce him then: ‘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.’