Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Books - The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

Disclaimer: I still know nothing about writing book reviews.

This problem of mine is made worse by my decision to pick, for my second review, so flawless a novel as this.

Published last year, Nathan Filer’s book The Shock of the Fall tells the story of a young man, Matthew Homes, coming to term with the death of his brother ten years earlier. It’s a book about mental illness, family and grief. It’s also a book about writing books. And I loved it.

I’ll give you three main reasons why, which handily separate into the three things I usually judge books by:

1. Form: This might seem a bit of a strange one, but I’m a big fan of form. There are so many more things that can be done with writing novels than just a linear narrative in Times New Roman, where every page looks the same. I really enjoyed The Shock of the Fall’s use of form, and the purposes form is put to (because I’m less of a fan of experimental form just for the sake of it). It’s been compared to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time, and I can see why. Both make use of images, diagrams, different fonts, etc, and are self-conscious about how chapters are named or numbered. This is my kind of postmodernism, because it shows novels to be what they are: creations.

I like that you can tell by the font of Matthew’s story whether he’s typing it on the computer at Hope Street Day Centre or on his typewriter at home. I like that we get to see his sketches alongside his words. I like that he talks about writing, that he’s sometimes interrupted by the care workers looking over his shoulder. I like that the very act of writing is central to the book, because the very writing of the story helps Matthew to recover. The Shock of the Fall makes writing not only a process, an action, but also a form of therapy.

2. Writing: The Shock of the Fall is one of those books where the writing is well-crafted but never over-crafted. Unlike The Professor of Poetry (see my last review), which I found overpowering and clumsy in its sheer poetic-ness, The Shock of the Fall is beautifully written without ever being difficult to read (linguistically, I mean; I’ll get on to how it was to read emotionally shortly). It has a lot of incredible sentences and various amazing similes, but they never feel unnatural. It read like something the protagonist Matthew might have actually written.

The characters are brilliantly drawn. Little details like the family tradition of watching Eastenders, sitting in the same places every night, or Matthew and his Dad’s secret handshake, bring them to life. Matthew is well-formed, realistic, complex and conflicted – everything a strong protagonist should be. The blame he feels for his brother’s death and all the pain it causes him are realistically and poignantly expressed. Matthew’s mother is also an incredible creation. She is somehow always both on the edge of Matthew’s understanding and yet within ours.

3. Content: As I’ve already said, The Shock of the Fall is a book about mental illness. It’s a book about a lot of other things as well, but this dominates, and is important, because people, and novels, don’t talk about mental illness enough. While a lot of novels do deal with depression, especially with what it feels like, far fewer tackle what it’s like to live in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, or to be treated with care in the community. This does, and it does so not by making Matthew a victim or a hero but by making him human.

So I thoroughly recommend you to read The Shock of the Fall.

I’m not saying that it’s not at times an unsettling and upsetting book. This is not a novel to take on holiday with you if you want a light happy read – but I count that as a point in its favour. At times I genuinely had to put my kindle down and stare out the window for a moment just to remind myself of reality. But what The Shock of the Fall is is a very honest and touching account of a family coming to terms with grief, and of a young man suffering from depression and schizophrenia. So yes, it is unsettling, but it is also funny, engaging, and brilliantly beautiful.

Greatest strength: The sheer humanity of the characters.

Greatest weakness: I promise I’ll be critical next time, but I honestly can think of nothing negative to say about The Shock of the Fall.

Let’s finish on a quote: I have one chance to get this right. I need to be careful. To unfold everything neatly, so that I know how to fold it away again if it all gets too much.

Now that’s what I call good writing.

Next time: The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

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