Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 346 pages; 2020.
Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss is one of those novels that seemed to be everywhere in 2021, earning rave reviews and hitting the bestseller charts around the world.
It’s the story of Martha Russell, a woman who struggles to maintain her sanity in the face of an undiagnosed mental illness.
After a short-lived, unconsummated marriage to a “total fuckwit”, she gets married to a childhood friend, Patrick, whom she’s known since she was 16. But while that marriage lasts considerably longer than her first, it also fails when her husband walks out two days after her 40th birthday party.
Disintegration of a marriage
The novel charts the disintegration of the marriage in tandem with Martha’s increasingly bizarre behaviour, which goes up and down like a roller coaster, and her quest to get answers to her psychological problems, which include crippling depression, unexplained bouts of sudden anger and suicidal thoughts.
Normal people say, I can’t imagine feeling so bad I’d genuinely want to die. I do not try and explain that it isn’t that you want to die. It is that you know you are not supposed to be alive, feeling a tirelessness that powders your bones, a tiredness with so much fear. The unnatural fact of living is something you must eventually fix.
It’s written in the first person in an engaging, likable voice full of mordant wit. There is something starkly funny on every page, and it’s this dark sense of humour, expertly balanced with a sense of pathos, that elevates the narrative into something surprisingly upbeat despite the bleak subject matter.
It expertly weaves Martha’s background into the story, so that we get a full rounded picture of her upbringing, the product of a Bohemian London family — her father is a failed poet, her mother a struggling sculptor — largely supported by a rich aunt, who lives in Belgravia, on the same square that is home to Margaret Thatcher.
The passing of time is measured by the number of Christmas Day dinners hosted by Aunt Winsome and the number of children her sister, Ingrid, has with her husband Hamish — “a man she met by falling over in front of his house while he was putting his bins out”.
She is pregnant with her fourth child; when she texted to say it was another boy, she sent the eggplant emoji, the cherries and the open scissors. She said ‘Hamish is non-figuratively getting the snip.’
It’s her close relationship with Ingrid, who is 15 months younger than her, that gives shape to Martha’s life. They have each other’s backs, but there are tensions, petty fights and falling outs. It’s tender and touching — and often blackly funny.
The story is deeply rooted in London life — the family home, for instance, is on Goldhawk Road — and the various neighbourhoods are faithfully depicted to provide a richly atmospheric novel.
Laughter and sadness
There’s a lot to like in Sorrow and Bliss, not least the way the author explores family loyalty, the forces that shape our personalities and how having it all doesn’t automatically bestow happiness upon us. It’s the kind of book that makes you cry on one page, laugh on the next — and sometimes do both at the same time!
That said, around the halfway mark I began to find the voice wearisome. Perhaps I have just read one too many books about women losing their grip on reality?
According to Amazon, Sorrow and Bliss was “an instant Sunday Times bestseller and a book of the year for the Times and Sunday Times, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Mail on Sunday, Evening Standard, Spectator, Daily Express, Irish Times, Irish Examiner, Irish Daily Mail, Metro, Critic, Sydney Morning Herald, Los Angeles Times, Stylist, Red and Good Housekeeping”.
And it has scored rave reviews from all and sundry, including celebrities (hello Gillian Anderson) and authors, such as Jessie Burton, Anne Patchett and David Nicholls.
For another blogger’s take on this novel, please see Tony’s review.
If you liked this, you might also like:
‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway: A young woman suffers a profoundly disturbing mental breakdown following the death of her secret lover.
‘A Line Made by Walking’ by Sara Baume: A 25-year-old woman, who is chronically depressed but refusing to take medication, decamps to her late grandmother’s house in the countryside to get better, but her mind slowly unravels.
‘Nobody is ever Missing’ by Catherine Lacey: A young Manhattan-based woman escapes her crumbling marriage to hitchhike around New Zealand, but her journey descends into a kind of madness as she grapples with her past, her present and her future.
19 thoughts on “‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason”
Ah. I was interested until you mentioned as soul-sisters the Janice Galloway and Sara Baume, neither of which I even slightly got on with. Perhaps not, then.
I wouldn’t let that put you off… the similarities are that all the lead characters have a mental illness. The books themselves are very different in terms of tone, voice and prose style. This one is by far the funniest. It’s very clever and snarky… if you like that sort of thing.
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This one’s on my list despite being wary of all the hype. I was about to mention the Galloway before I saw your reply to Margaret. I quite enjoy a bit of snarkiness!
This one is very snarky without being a smart Alec, if you know what I mean. It just grew a teensy bit wearing on me…but on the whole I rather enjoyed this book. Four stars.
Kim, Thank You for the mention, along side the mention of all those actual famous people (hello Gillian Anderson).
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I absolutely loved this novel (read as an ARC so read minus the hype). I thought the layers (back story, childhood, the role of the aunt and uncle) were so well managed.
Agreed. The layers are so well done. It feels like a seamless tapestry. All the tensions / rivalries with the cousins, too. And the warmth / love of the father and the tough love of the mother.
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I seem to live surrounded by depression, it’s always such hard work to strike the right tone. Unfortunately it’s one of the many illnesses I haven’t had, so I lack understanding. Grumpiness, well that’s another story altogether, I wonder if it’s a syndrome yet. I read Tony’s review too (sorry Tony, I didn’t leave a comment) and I’m inclined to give it a go (though not to the extent of paying for it).
I wonder if famous people do bad reviews, they could hardly afford to.
I didn’t know whether this book would be for me, either, so I borrowed it from the library. I had a long wait for it as there were quite a few people in the reserve queue ahead of me.
Famous people don’t do bad reviews… I haven’t checked but the authors I namechecked above are probably signed to the same publisher. That’s usually how these things work.
I think there’s a bit of a glut of these kinds of books ATM, which affects my ability to engage with them empathetically…
I think this one is a bit different, Lisa, because it’s not a 20-something trying to work out her place in the world etc. This woman is in her late 30s and it’s a faithful depiction of someone not knowing whether her bad behaviour is simply her personality or a mental illness. My only real quibble with it is that it’s a bit too long and I grew sick of the voice… but on the whole this is an excellent novel.
My library has this but I generally don’t get on with books about people losing their grip on reality, so I may avoid!
Fair enough. Martha doesn’t lose grip on reality; she just has trouble knowing how to behave and part of the issue is wondering whether she’s just extremely rude or whether she might have a psychological problem.
I agree with your review. I found this shallow novel very disappointing: it was on so many “Best of” lists that I planned to spend a cozy weekend reading and chortling. Not for me, though many did like it.
I didn’t think it was shallow… just a bit long… I got a LOT of laughs out of it.