“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.”
Matthew is a teenager living in Bristol. He’s also schizophrenic. The Shock of the Fall is Matthew’s story – from the accident that killed his younger brother, to the illness he must learn to live with. Only it’s not quite that straightforward.
Given a typewriter by his beloved Nanny Noo, and with access to the day centre computer, Matthew sets out to tell his story. The narrative jumps around, much as Matthew’s mind does. Events don’t unfold in sequence – things that happened over different years are run together. We move between the typewritten account of events (initially cynical, a little angry, a little forlorn) to the account we assume is typed elsewhere (often more rational). Sometimes Matthew comes close to
telling us something revealing about his brother’s accident, but then backs away. He is not always a reliable narrator of events – we don’t always like him, we don’t always trust him – but by the end of the book we perhaps begin to understand him.
Matthew draws us in and pushes us away – as he does with his family and the care team around him. At times he is highly aware of the systems in place to treat him; cynical on the one hand, but acknowledging that the staff are not so bad on the other. He admits that the thing he hates most about his illness is that it makes him selfish – and he is. At best his parents, Nanny Noo and even his brother are cameos in a story that is solely about Matthew.
Reading a novel that examines one boy’s descent into mental illness will not be everyone’s cup of tea. On the other hand, this debut has captured the essence of Matthew and his story with a compelling use of language. Despite the book having no grand denouements or final happy-ever-after, it still catches you and draws you in. The book is not always an easy read, and if you like a straightforward narrative then maybe this is not for you. It’s too easy to compare books that deal with a difficult topic, like mental health, to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – but for much of The Shock of the Fall, it is much harder to warm to the main character, who is neither endearing nor as honest as Haddon’s creation.
The book is beautifully produced and packaged, and HarperCollins are working hard to promote it to as wide an audience as possible. The author, Nathan Filer, is a registered mental health nurse and he’s clearly brought his personal experiences to bear in creating the character of Matthew and the way in which he views the world. With the marketing clout of HarperCollins behind it, it should do well – and it deserves to. Not only because it’s a fine piece of writing and a clever debut, but because it sets out to destigmatize teenage schizophrenia.
Many thanks to Jane for the review, and HarperCollins for the review copy.