Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Collins; 321 pages; 2014.
Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall — which won the 2013 Costa Book of the Year, announced in January — charts one boy’s descent into madness. But this is not a sensationalised account of mental illness — it’s a highly nuanced and very readable book, worthy of the praise that has been heaped upon it.
The story is told by 19-year-old Matthew in a chatty, personable voice, often directly aimed at the reader — “I don’t know if you watch Eastenders, or even if you do, I don’t suppose you’ll remember an episode from so long ago” — which makes for quite an intimate, occasionally claustrophobic, experience.
This intimacy is further encouraged by the way in which the book is printed: different fonts are used to show when Matt is typing his story on a typewriter or a computer, and it includes letters, both real and fake, from doctors and caseworkers, along with small illustrations, or doodles.
While Matt never names his illness, we know that it has necessitated a stay in a psychiatric ward and is currently managed by weekly injections (because he’s inclined not to take his pills). We also know that it can be traced back to a tragic incident in his childhood: the death of his older brother, Simon, while the family were on holiday in Dorset, and for which Matt blames himself.
This blame seems to manifest itself in anger, which Matt struggles to contain — when he’s 10 he stabs a classmate with a compass; as a teenager his angry outbursts frighten his parents, his nanna and the nurses — so that a nasty undercurrent of violence seems to simmer below the surface at all times.
It doesn’t help that his mother appears to have problems of her own. In the immediate aftermath of Simon’s death, she fusses over Matt to such an extent that one wonders if she has Munchausen by proxy syndrome. But his grandmother, “Nanny Noo”, is a real tower of strength. She treats him kindly at all times and respects his desire for independence. When he moves out of home aged 17 to live with his school friend and takes up a low-paid job as a care worker, she offers him endless moral (and occasionally financial) support. Their relationship is beautifully told.
A story about mental illness
The novel’s greatest strength lies in its depiction of mental illness. It’s very well done, but this is probably no surprise given the author is a qualified mental health nurse and worked for the mental health service in Bristol for many years. There’s a lightness of touch so you never feel as if you’re reading a book about “issues”, and the ways in which the narrator intersects with medical staff and caseworkers feels incredibly authentic.
At times, Matt’s descent into madness reminded me very much of MJ Hyland’s Carry Me Down (though far less dark) and Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (though far less violent), with a tinge of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time thrown in for good measure. Given that these are three of my favourite novels, this is high praise indeed.
Admittedly, I wasn’t sure I liked the voice to begin with, because it felt a bit “dumbed down”, but I soon got used to it. And the ending, which is redemptive and emotional, was a little too twee for my tastes.
It also feels as if the book is aimed at a young adult audience, and I suspect it would particularly appeal to teenage readers or those adults who don’t read very much and want something easy to sink their teeth into. That’s not to damn it with faint praise: The Shock of the Fall is a highly readable book that deserves a wide audience because it deals with uncomfortable, often ignored, subjects in an intelligent, well-informed and gently perceptive way.