I have just finished reading The Shock of the Fall. It did not take long and I did not want to put it down. It is one of those rare books where the story is carried in the words themselves – where it is not just what is being said that hits you but how it is being said. And it does hit you.
I seem to have read a spate of books about children dealing with disabilities or tragedies recently. Think Wonder or The Universe versus Alex Woods, to name a few. I don’t know whether the child perspective (and possibly the elderly perspective, if you look at the likes of The Hundred Year Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared) is a current literary trend, but there is something fascinating in the innocent (or the experienced) voice that they contain. I thought I would find such narrators patronizing or naïve. I haven’t.
The Shock of the Fall starts with a young narrator, a boy’s-eye take on the world, but it flits between the child’s experience and the teenager’s, so that the one becomes embedded in the other. Just more literally than it happens for most people. It is the story (spoilers) of a boy’s descent into madness, of tragic lives cut short – both literally and emotionally – and yet it is not a tragedy nor the glamourisation of one. It is impossible not to empathise with the narrator, and the precision of the language and the depiction of the story seem to take it beyond being merely a sad – or indeed happy – book.
Matt’s (the name the protagonist fictionally gives himself) madness is predictable and yet the description of it is not clichéd or empty or over-hyped or even over-simplified. Or not in my opinion and, having fought my own battles, I guess I’m in a relatively good position to say that. And while I have tended to avoid novels explicitly about mental health and whether the cause of Matt’s illness is entirely credible, The Shock of the Fall made me stop and think –
And there are several passages that I highlighted which said what I was thinking far better than I could:
“Mental illness turns people inwards. That’s what I reckon. It keeps us forever trapped by the pain of our own minds, in the same way that the pain of a broken leg or a cut thumb will grab your attention, holding it so tightly that your good leg or your good thumb seem to cease to exist”
“We are selfish, my illness and I. We think only of ourselves. We shape the world around us into messages, into secret whispers spoken only for us.”
I have been wondering why it feels so important to share these passages. Empathy is a powerful motivator. I wanted to write these down, partly, because they resonated so sharply with me and I wanted to remember them. Because they seemed acutely and insightfully true. Because when I was ill, none of the things that I truly value now – relationships and friends and lovers and days in the sunshine – even featured and I didn’t notice, at the time, but I saw it in Matt’s world and it seemed to reflect my own old one. Are they relevant to any one else? I don’t know. Awareness is important but seems, to me, to have its limitation. Maybe it just feels important to appreciate those random lines that capture a human experience so well. Maybe if you’re fortunate never to experience madness, it’s worth knowing how lucky you are.
He also writes – “reading is a bit like hallucinating”- and I wanted to remember that too, because I hadn’t thought of reading in that way before but it seems so obvious now.