THE SHOCK OF THE FALL by Nathan Filer (Harper Collins, 2013)

How do we define and treat madness?  What goes on in the mind of someone diagnosed as mentally ill?  These are two of the questions that lie at the heart of this fine debut novel in which the author draws upon his experience as a registered mental health nurse.

The story is told from the point of view of 19-year-old Matthew Homes, a schizophrenic consumed by grief and guilt following the death of his younger brother Simon. The narrative jumps back and forward in time to piece together this tragic event which happened 9 years earlier.

We learn that Simon had downs syndrome and that the siblings had a special bond. The young boy’s death is announced in the first chapter although the circumstances surrounding his death are held back until near the end. This allows Filer to work in elements of suspense into what is essentially a study of one man’s slow descent into madness. His illness is in his genes and likened to a snake which “slithers through the branches of our family tree”.

Nathan Filer, winner of the Costa Book of the Year award

Nathan Filer

This ‘disease’ is manifest as a distorted view of reality which makes it nigh on impossible for him to integrate with the ‘normal’ world. Matthew struggles to put his feelings into words but this doesn’t stop his drive to write. This is tolerated by his carers but they describe his activities as “writing behaviour” implying that this is further proof of his obsessive personality. Homes is intelligent enough to see the irony of this kind of institutionalised jargon. He satirizes the PC language whereby he is referred to as a “service user” rather than a patient and is described as having “compliance problems with tablets”.

The death of a loved one can tear apart even the strongest individuals and its effect on someone as sensitive and intuitive as Matthew is nothing short of catastrophic. His inability to come to terms with the loss  pushes him over the edge. In this way, Filer depicts insanity as akin to a state of falling without a safety net.

The writings are a kind of dialogue with himself and we learn little about his fellow patients. “I am writing myself into my own story and I am telling it from within”. Matthew says, and admits that “most of my life isn’t anything”.  It becomes clear that he is more of a danger to himself than other people but the chances of an unconditional release into the ‘free’ society look remote. “I can only described reality as I know it”, he writes, and it is apparent that his version of events does not square with the ‘sane’ people around  him.

A parallel story of a young girl whose mother has died feels a little contrived but otherwise this is a remarkably assured first novel.

When asked what he would like the reader to take away from this novel, Nathan Filer replied “A desire to share it”.  So, in this spirit, I heartily recommend this book and, if you enjoyed it as much as I did, pass it on.