Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer Review

Matt Homes is a young man from Bristol with schizophrenia, writing out his life story which centres around the death of his Downs Syndrome brother when they were children. As Matt’s narrative progresses, we learn there’s more to his brother’s death than he initially lets on and that this is why he carries around feelings of guilt.

The Shock of the Fall is a character portrait rather than a narrative driven book - unfortunately, for a character piece, I never really felt like Matt had much of a well-defined character to start with; it’s sketchy at best and oftentimes feels uneven. The best work Nathan Filer did with Matt was show how his brother’s death devastated his life but how much of that life was due to that haunting event or his own schizophrenia is unclear.

I have no experience with schizophrenia so I can’t say whether Matt’s behaviour is realistic or not, or even when or how the illness manifests throughout the narrative, but I was never sure whether his actions were the result of personal trauma or mental illness.

What I mean is, was the point of the novel about a person coming to terms with a traumatic childhood experience or about someone dealing with mental illness, and if so, why have these two unconnected elements side by side - what’s the reader supposed to focus on? I guess given the way the novel ended, it was about Matt coming to terms with his brother’s death, but what that has to do with his schizophrenia is unclear. Did he even need to have schizophrenia? Maybe the hallucinatory sequences wouldn’t have had as much weight if he did, but what a contrived reason to have that illness if that was the point!

It’s an easy to follow narrative but a very dull one. Filer uses his own experience as a mental health nurse to inform the novel and the passages set in the treatment centre were convincing. If there’s one element that stays with you, it’s the clear picture of mental health treatment in England today, and how soul-draining it is for patients.

But other than that, there’s no plot to follow, few other characters, and a narrator with very little personality or much to say. It’s an extremely slow read despite being relatively short and the “reveal” of his brother’s death happens about 60 pages before the end when it should’ve been the conclusion of the book - those last 60 pages were a real slog only to build up to an overly sentimental, corny Hollywood-esque ending.

At best this reads like a Young Adult novel that’s trying a bit too hard to be literary or a creative writing assignment completely devoid of feeling or insight. After the novel is a brief interview with Filer and I noticed when he was asked “were you reading any books during the writing process” he mentions Catcher in the Rye and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which is really telling. Parts of the book - like the typewriter font pages - read like Holden Caulfield’s voice, where Matt’s character suddenly becomes very biting and he turns into a whiny teenager, while other parts of the book are more matter-of-fact and observational as if Christopher Boone were speaking. There are even pointless doodles thrown in a la Curious Incident!

The Shock of the Fall is a very shallow novel that wears its influences too obviously to be taken seriously as an original or thoughtful work. It tries some strange stylistic tricks like drawings or font changes to little effect and for no reason - variety maybe to distract the reader from the dull prose? - and rather than be moved by Matt’s story, I was frequently bored or unclear as to what the point of many scenes were.

This book won the 2013 Costa Prize but I shouldn’t be surprised that this prize-winning novel is awful. I mean, who knows how to pick out great literature better than a judging panel made up of the lead singer of Texas, an actress who was once in a George Clooney movie, and a TV presenter, for a prize sponsored by a coffee chain? 

The Shock of the Fall

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