I have an admission to make: I am not a great reader of fiction. There is something so compelling about the drama of real life that I usually find it difficult to engage with events that have simply crystallised in the mind of another. I know, it is my underestimation and loss.
So every holiday I take one novel along with several other books about the real stuff. This February I went to Goa to get a place in the sun while the weather did its worst in Britain and the well-heeled beneficiaries of tax-cutting Britain looked to the state for help as they waded and paddled their way to and from the shops.
On this trip I took with me Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life, Ralph Miliband’s Marxism and Politics, Neal MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (based on the Radio 4 series) and Prisonomics by the recently released Vicky Pryce.
I always struggle to choose a novel and, once chosen, read it first on the beach. Not so this year: before going away I stumbled across news about the 2013 Booker Prize winner, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall. My mind said to me ‘you must read this book’.
The Shock of the Fall is a book about a young man who becomes mentally ill and the circumstances around his illness. Being a registered mental health nurse, Nathan Filer writes from a position of knowingness and brings a realism to the book that satisfied my desire to be reading about actually existing life.
I won’t give the game away as I think you should read the book yourself. This would please Filer, who in an interview at the end of the book is asked “What would you like the reader to take away from your novel?” He answers, “A desire to share it”. I took away a lot more than that. Embedded in the main story there are themes of loss (revealed on page 5), isolation and social fracture. In the distance, but clearly visible, is the fin of the shark of spending cuts to mental health services that began to take hold after the shock of another fall in 2008.
What is most striking, though, is how, as a reader, I began to sit with the narrator, Matt, as he tells his own story; and how the novel sums up the fine line between having, in today’s touchy-feely argot, ‘well being’ and ‘being unwell’. I am supposing that many people will have experienced a period of mental ill-health of some sort – this book takes you much further down the slippery slope than you may have experienced and makes sense all the way. It is for this reason that it will remain with you long after you have reached final page.
It nestles the narrative within family life, school life, the presence and absence of reliable friends and the experience of being worked upon by mental health staff. There seems to be an implied, or at least revealed, critique of care in the community alongside an honest telling of what is humanly possible by trained professionals when a society seeks to shut away, whether in a dingy flat, or a ward, those who struggle most in a world that systematically marginalises the vulnerable.
Whenever I do get round to reading a novel and am captured by it, I always begin thinking ‘they should make a film out of this’, because cinema is my favourite medium. Having read and seen, among others, Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I know it is possible to recreate both the narrative and the feeling of a book on screen as might be imagined it in the mind. The Shock of the Fall is, though, an intensely first person personal story, and one that would be difficult to translate onto screen, so perhaps it should stay where it is, on the page.