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Reviews

The Shock of the Fall

Rebecca Foster

Nathan Filer

Borough Press, 314pp

'I'll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name's Simon. I think you're going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he'll be dead.' That sudden, uncushioned revelation opens debut novelist Nathan Filer's melancholy story about the effects of mental illness and grief on one Bristol family.

The Shock of the Fall was Costa's 2013 Book of the Year. In the tradition of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, it gives a voice to the sort of character whose experiences might otherwise be overlooked. Just as Haddon's Christopher Boone is fascinated with mathematics, Filer's nineteen-year-old narrator, Matthew Homes, is obsessed with science. He delights in medical dictionary definitions and lists of symptoms and side effects, and is always thinking about how atoms recombine to create new things. Though he now alternates between his own flat and an occupational therapy day centre, he has been institutionalised in the past and remains heavily medicated against the voices and violent tendencies that make him a threat to himself and others.

Filer, a registered mental health nurse, coyly withholds a clinical diagnosis of Matthew's illness until three-quarters of the way through, but there have been hints about 'a disease with the shape and sound of a snake.' Matthew portrays schizophrenia in language that evokes Genesis: 'It slithers through the branches of our family tree,' a malevolent force disrupting the family's Eden. He draws a genogram, a tool doctors use 'to help them see which branches bear the rotten fruit.' In Matthew's case, the 'rotten' ancestor is Great-Uncle Ernest, whose asylum residency has been kept secret for decades.

Mental illness is only half of this story, however. Even more of a challenge to daily life is grief. Although Filer discloses the source of that grief early on, it takes the rest of the novel to uncover exactly what happened and how it has affected the family. When Matthew was nine and Simon - who had Down's syndrome and other associated physical challenges - was twelve, a seemingly innocuous incident during a beach holiday led to Simon's death. Earlier in their stay, Matthew had tripped and Simon carried him all the way back to their caravan. The shock of that initial fall, and the fatal accident that quickly followed it, have coloured Matthew's understanding of the world: 'This dismissive and uncaring universe simply carried on with its business, as if nothing of any consequence had happened.'

As the title suggests, for the Homes family, life is all about making the best of a post-Fall world. Mum sinks deep into depression, and feelings of guilt about his part in his brother's death continue to plague Matthew into adulthood. He works night shifts as a carer for the elderly, but his mental state begins to deteriorate: he misses health checks, fails to take his medication, starts self-harming, and undertakes an elaborate art project - jars of dirt and plastic tubing simulating chemical compounds - that fills his whole flat.

Art, whether writing or drawing, becomes Matthew's 'way to be somewhere else', providing a temporary escape route from the depressing monotony of his everyday life. He often conveys a sense of urgency, as if he is working against the clock to preserve Simon's story on paper: 'I have one chance to get this right. I have to be careful.' His powerlessness over most elements of his life makes him feel 'the only thing I have any control over in my entire world is the way I choose to tell this story.' Yet he acknowledges that his account may be repetitive: 'I live a Cut & Paste kind of life… it takes only a couple of pages to say how it was day after day. But it is the day-after-day that takes so long.' However, the cyclical form that the narrative takes reflects the nature of the recovery process: 'We move in circles, this illness and me. We are electrons orbiting a nucleus.'

Still, the novel's mosaic quality - with assorted layouts and fonts, alongside sketches and typewritten sections - keeps it varied. Appropriately for a story told by a schizophrenic, readers hear snippets of multiple voices through letters and medical reports. Matthew's own voice is sarcastic but lovable. If he seems narcissistic at times, this is an inevitable result of his condition; 'Mental illness turns people inwards… keeps us forever trapped by the pain of our own minds'. As a picture of what schizophrenia looks like from the inside, this is a helpful companion piece to Patrick and Henry Cockburn's Henry's Demons, shortlisted for the 2011 Costa Biography Award.

As useful as the insider view of mental illness might be, though, I found Simon to be the novel's most enduring character - he is a palpable presence, not just an absence; not just a voice in Matthew's head, but also the remaining bond between family members. His cheerful guilelessness and his 'beautiful smiling face that looked like the moon' shed sweetness over the entire book. Filer emphasised Simon's role through the poetic but somewhat confusing title chosen for the US hardcover publication, Where the Moon Isn't. (After disappointing sales in the States - and following the Costa win - the book is being re-released in paperback under its original British title.)

As the tenth anniversary of Simon's death approaches, Matthew looks for ways to pay tribute. This novel is his unsentimental memorial; as he argues, 'this story has never been a keepsake - it's [about] finding a way to let go.' Despite his suspicions that an indifferent Fate is against him, when remembering his brother Matthew can still see that 'sometimes all the stars in the entire universe conspire to make something good happen.'