December Book of the Month – The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

A mystery clouded by mental instability. Raw, shocking and cruel, but above all honest, this is a insight into the world of a teenager battling mental illness. It is clear that, in 2013 at least, the judges of the Costa Book Award were wise. I can’t think of a more suitable winner- I was gripped by the novel and read it in less than two days.

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Matthew Holmes, aged 19, recounts the incident that has dominated his childhood painstakingly, from the computer in his local mental health centre. Why is he there? Diagnosed with schizophrenia, just like his grandfather, Matthew often hears his older brother with Downs Syndrome, Simon, speaking to him. Begging him to play, to come outside and join him:

“If the tap choked and spluttered before the water came, he was saying I’m lonely. When I opened a bottle of Dr Pepper and the caramel bubbles fizzed over the rim, he was asking me to come out and play. He could speak through an itch, the certainty of a sneeze, the after-taste of tablets, or the way sugar fell from a spoon.”

And our protagonist feels compelled to listen. Simon has been dead for over a decade. Some say he died at a Caravan Park in Dorset, but  Matthew believes it was practically murder. The guilt that has wracked him, and wrecked his family after that fated night saw a shocking transition from an innocent, boisterous boy to a teenager stumbling through life, taking all the wrong turns.

For me, it was Matthew’s voice that made this novel remarkable. His voice, breaking free from the words, illustrated the development of his character incredibly. Matthew was almost tangible, and that is what Filer achieves so greatly. That sense of a person speaking just out of sight. That there really is someone out there, a boy that age. It’s how we get lulled into fiction, because it’s all just stories, isn’t it? In the end it’s a product of a person sitting in front of a bright little screen, carefully crafting the characters that seem so spontaneous. The characters we take home and discuss over dinner, and bring into our lives.

One outstanding aspect of this novel was the detail that Filer gave concerning mental health facilities and regimes. He clearly didn’t research through watching films. Actually, Filer was a mental health nurse, and so the vivid descriptions of the mistrust Matthew feels as he is forced to take his drugs tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and to endure the awful side effects, can be taken at face value as that of a (relatively- this is still fiction) accurate account, not that of some dreaming, sheltered author.

Yet on the other hand, there was a minor issue. Only a small one in the grand scheme of things, but it must be mentioned. The great reveal was grossly delayed. It was saved until page 247. By that time the actual suspense had faded away, because my interest in reason to Simon’s death could only last for so long, and by that point I had a rough (correct) idea anyway, so the climax/ reveal came as no shock. It is worth mentioning, that from the outset the protagonist does mention it the ‘shock of the fall’ (yes, that’s the title too!) which kills his brother, but we only really learn why it is has triggered schizophrenia and lasting guilt until the reveal. And marvellous at character building although Filer is, I don’t care that much to be interested until the end of novel.

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Overall I thought that this poignant novel, with a frank and humorous tone, is definitely worth a read because of it’s insight into the life of a teenager with schizophrenia, and the clever use of typography and sketches to aid the narration. Here is a short extract which I think sums up the tone of the novel perfectly:

“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. And he was never the same after that.”

So have you read the Shock of the Fall? What do you think of it? What is your favourite book concerning mental illnesses?

 

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When We Collided by Emery Lord

This novel is a classic summer love story with a difference; not only does contain moments of unrivalled hilarity and it’s counterpart bitter sadness, but it stars two damaged teenagers struggling to face their scarred past in a demanding, unforgiving world.

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It is finally Summer again, and Vivi is new to Verona Cova, and is a vacationer, as they are known to the townies (the people who live in Verona). Whilst working in a pottery shop, Vivi, a burst of colour who refuses to be tied to reality by her medication, comes across Jonah and his younger sister. Jonah is a slowly recovering; his father recently died, leaving his mother to recoil into encompassing grief, and now rarely leaves the safety of her bedroom. Chirpy and energetic though he may seem, Jonah feels excruciatingly weary from the strain of now sharing the role being the parent, and looking after his other siblings , especially since he is only 17. So when he meets Vivi, he is fascinated by her optimistic take on the universe, flamboyant nature and creative ecstatic mind. And Vivi loves how Jonah cares for his younger siblings, and his tender, thoughtful nature. But they belong on different planets; Vivi is a dreamer and can never be pinned down, whilst Jonah is always trying to be responsible, always trying  do the right thing. So when the two planets so different collide, it is clear that this inexplicable attraction between them will have consequences. But to what extent?

I thought that the title was a shame because it does not reflect the novel honestly enough to do it justice! In some ways, the title is completely irrelevant, because it is never referred to once in the novel, and to add to that, it is cliche! Every other love story has a slightly metaphorical, romantic sounding name like that, so the title in my opinion drags the novel down instead of exalting it, which is a shame because I love the novel and I think that it deserves better.

The novel is written in the contemporary style of alternative points of view, switching between the two protagonists Vivi and Jonah.  I adored the novel and thought that it was fantastic until I reached roughly second half; then it became saturated with the details of Vivi’s bipolar disorder: there were some awesome sentences in the first half, where I thought that the imagery created was incredibly strong, even for the such abstract ideas mentioned, but as I neared the end of this novel, this writing flair displayed earlier quickly dissolved, as Lord tried to handle everyone’s reaction to her disorder. Having said that, you will fall in love with the essentially flawed characters as they try and navigate themselves through their darker times, and always try to find that the perspective of hope wherever they go.

It was a fairly typical plot ( wild girl + good boy= fun filled summer), so nothing completely revolutionary will take place, but the characters were developed enough, and the plot was well written, so despite not being ground-breaking, it is definitely worth a read (if you are interested in this side of YA literature). Also, it wasn’t the fact that Vivi was bipolar that set this novel apart, because increasingly there are characters with mental illnesses featured in novels, but the quirk of Vivi loving the whole of Jonah’s family, not just him exclusively, which evolved this love story to becoming much more exclusive.  Aside from that, it was slightly unoriginal, it must be said (e.g skinny dipping happens in most of these types of novels, ice creams on the beach, sneaking into rooms…).

This novel is perfect for a relaxing holiday read, where you can sink into the romance, sea and sunshine, particularly as it is not an overly taxing mentally. I would recommend that the target audience for this novel be teenagers.