Life is a complicated thing.
Anyone who has reached adulthood with life, limbs and psyche relatively intact will attest to the fact that for all its capacity for magical delight and soul-consuming wonder, life also comes with some fairly onerous demands.
It’s a hard enough ask for anyone to get through unscathed but throw in mental illness and the lingering, corrosive effects of grief, and you have a recipe for a fraught existence that slides from the darkness to light and back again with frightening rapidity. (That’s assuming, of course, that the light ever makes its presence felt in the first place.)
Matthew Homes, the schizophrenic protagonist of Nathan Filer’s deeply moving novel, The Shock of the Fall, knows all too well what it is like to carry the burden of grief in crushing tandem with the debilitating burdens of mental illness.
“That [wrestling with his dad and Simon] is what we used to do when Simon was alive, but now Simon wasn’t alive, i never got up before my dad. At quarter to seven he would still come into my room to find me lying awake, unsure of how to begin. That must have been hard for him.” (P. 37)
In a novel that bends chronological order to slightly disorienting effect at first, until you realise this is how Matthew’s mind works, leaping from one moment to the other in no particular order, we bear witness to how the death of Matthew’s older brother Simon, a person with Down Syndrome, when the siblings were 9 and 13 respectively, massively impacted the way he sees life, even before his debilitating diagnosis.
As you duck and weave through Matthew’s recollection of that horrible moment, one he blames himself entirely for, although save for one catastrophically-bad decision one rainy night, it was an accident rather the product of deliberate intent, and then the way it informs the young man he grows into, you ache for the toll that the combined weight of mental illness and grief takes on him.
But not just Matthew, who struggles to operate in a world where he hears and sees Simon everywhere from the candle flames of his birthday cake to rushing water and the underside of his bed, but his family who want to love and be there for him, and are in many important ways, and yet are hobbled by the same grief that besets Matthew.
The Shock of the Fall beautifully and heartrendingly explores how grief stops the clock in so many ways, with what came before it bearing little to no resemblance to what follows.
Its effects linger far after the actual event and you could well argue, and it’s borne out in the beautifully well-thought out and wholly-affecting narrative, that it never really reaches a conclusion.
The truly lovely part of The Shock of the Fall, which gracefully mixes insightfully poetic language with raw, confronting honesty, is that Matthew finds some resolution and peace, much as his family does, coming to grips, as much as anyone can, with the assailing power of grief to send a life permanently off-kilter.
The refreshing thing is that his happy ending of sorts, the exact nature of which I won’t reveal, is that it is not the kind dreamed up by Hollywood, big on melodrama and short on affecting authentic emotion, but rather deeply real, acknowledging that even when we are given some kind of closure, it is not neatly and perfectly sewn up, all signs of the scars erased.
Rather, and given the nature of his illness which Matthew admits is always with him and will never ever leave him alone since it is inextricably bound up with him, the sense of an ending he receives is as much as a beginning and a continuation as it is any sort of imperfect to long and drawn out grief and loss.
“But beside the light switch, he had written something. I was never meant to read it. I know this because he would paint over it when he came back to do the second coat. And he had no way of knowing that I’d be brought home on this one day to collect my post. I ran my fingers across the words, written lightly in ballpoint pen. What he’d written was:
“We’ll beat this thing mon ami. We’ll beat this thing together.” (PP. 210-211)
But is that not the nature of life for everyone? Matthew certainly has a more intensely complicated experience of its vicissitudes than anyone else in the book, but the truth remains the same for everyone, a salutary lesson in the universal even handedness of grief and life’s contrary nature.
The Shock of the Fall explores these truths and others through a multitude of devices to get us into the mind of Matthew, one of the most visually striking being the changes in font and text size from one section of the book to the other.
It neatly illustrates how Matthew’s mind works, and that even though he’s often aware it’s his illness talking, he feels powerless to counteract it, and when it delivers him up Simon, “alive” and kicking as if he never left – his departures from reality are all Simon-centric and suffused with regret and deep sadness – really doesn’t want to, even if he could.
The shifts in time also bring home the fact that the tragic events of a decade ago – Matthew goes from 9 to 19 over the course of the book’s brilliantly well-articulated, time-jumbled narrative – are never far from home, as real now as they were all that time ago, coterminous with everything happening in the present.
As moving and deeply affecting a book as you’re likely to find – it is damn near impossible not to weep when Matthew gets closer to the source of his grief and pain, reliving the events of Simon’s death – The Shock of the Fall has delightful warmth and humour, emotional honesty and a devastatingly beautiful insightfulness that understands and touchingly explores how life never follows an easy or well-laid out path and that for all of us, whether we have mental illness or not, it is a journey with no easily-reached or lived-in destination.