Birth of a literary supernova
Presenting the very deserving winner of the 2013 Costa First Novel Award.
I WAS somewhat underwhelmed by the winner of the 2012 Costa First Novel Award, Francesca Segal’s The Innocents. That novel seemed a bit too chick lit and lightweight to win such a lofty award.
So I approached the latest Costa First Novel winner – announced on Jan 6 – with reduced expectations.
However, to use a hyperbolic phrase with good cause, The Shock Of The Fall by 32-year-old Briton Nathan Filer simply “blew me away”. This is a brilliant and ground-breaking work of such emotional heft that my eyes moistened every few pages.
It’s not a traditional or straightforward narrative, though; more a multi-dimensional portrait of a highly vulnerable and fragile teen. The young man featured is a schizophrenic called Matthew Holmes. Following the childhood death of his brother, Simon, at a holiday camp in Dorset, a rural county on England’s south coast, The Shock Of The Fall chronicles both the coming of age and the descent into mental illness of Matthew.
Duly, the reader inhabits the central character’s baffling and occasionally terrifying world, which swerves from vignettes of bittersweet family life to chilling visions of his deceased brother.
What undoubtedly enabled Filer to pen such a powerful novel on mental illness is the fact that he used to work as a registered mental health nurse with Britain’s National Health service (the NHS). But the book’s focus is sensibly demarcated, given the subject matter.
“It’s a story about a family coming to terms with grief and it is a character study of Matthew Holmes and one of the things about him is that he’s got schizophrenia.
“But it’s not a novel about schizophrenia and it’s not a novel about the NHS,” the author told British national daily The Guardian after winning the award earlier this month.
The novel opens with Matthew, at this point 19 years old, nostalgia-tripping about the family’s stay at that fateful holiday camp, though not about the fatal accident itself, which instead hovers over all these pages, ghost-like.
Matt – as he dubs himself – blames himself, probably wrongly, for the accident – with inevitable devastating psychological consequences brought on by his guilt.
In his own words, while writing about himself in the third person, Matt “suffers from command hallucinations”, which he attributes to his dead sibling, who is described as having had “special needs” and “a beautiful smiling face that looked like the moon”.
Eventually, and as we anticipate, Matt takes us back to the accident itself, a decade previously, when the two brothers ventured out of their family’s caravan to a spot on a cliff-top, where Matt tells Simon he saw something interesting take place a few hours earlier.
This episode ends abruptly in a tragedy that unfolded in simply a few seconds, but whose outcome may haunt Matt forever.
We can almost picture 12-year-old Simon falling slo-mo into the sea.
“Whatever wave had been swelling in the sea in the seconds before he fell,” Matt writes from a bottomless well of melancholia, “would break in the seconds after. This dismissive and uncaring universe simply carried on with its business, as if nothing of any consequence had happened.”
Here in Malaysia, where mental illness issues remain something of a taboo topic (though this picture has improved considerably in recent years), Filer has provided a strong and sympathetic voice in Matthew Holmes, the owner of an unwell mind.
There are Matts all over the world but, sadly, very few live in places with advanced mental-health care programmes.
Usually, novels that tackle the issue of psychiatric illness tend to stereotype or oversimplify their lead characters. However, Matt is so realistically depicted and complex that you can almost sense him fidgeting in the next chair as you read this.
His treatment for his burgeoning mental illness makes him, in a sense, lose his brother all over again. The reader urgently wants him to get better, but this is a realistic depiction of a malady with no reliable cure.
He is, however, “managed” by his local community health team, undergoes therapy, and takes medication.
The treatment scenes are packed with of sharply droll observations.
“The mugs are provided by drug (sales) reps. They have the brands of the medication we hate stamped all over them,” Matt notes. And at the patients’ day-care centre, “the manics talk – but they talk crap”.
And the descriptions of family life for the Holmes before and after the tragedy are beautifully penned, especially those of Matt’s close relationship with his grandmother.
Filer’s style is uncompromising. For a first novel, the writing here is remarkably audacious and experimental. And as a result of this, the author is able to convincingly capture Matt’s desperate state of mind.
The Shock Of The Fall, which took the author three years to in the complete, proves that adage that you “should write what you know” and deservedly won one of the world’s most prestigious writing awards for this former mental-health nurse, and now Britain’s latest literary supernova.
Netting a globally renowned writing prize is the blissful reverie of many an aspiring novelist. I can’t help thinking that it could not have happened to a worthier or more courageous contender.