“There was the shock of the fall and the blood on my knee.”
It’s a statement that comes back several times in Nathan Filer’s first book and only novel [he has also written The Heartland: finding and losing schizophrenia (2019)], and its meaning evolves until it reaches its final, heartbreaking metaphorical expression.
This first iteration, which appears on page 6 of my edition, is uttered by Matthew (Matt) Homes, the narrator of this thoughtful, tragic, humorous and profoundly human story. Matt is 19 and lives in Bristol, England. He had a brother named Simon, who had Down syndrome.
Matt’s “voice” reaches us from one of several keyboards: the typewriter he received as a gift from his grandmother (whom he fondly refers to as Nanny Noo) and keeps at his apartment, and the one that’s connected to the computer at the Hope Road Day Centre, under the supervision of the Brunel Community Health Team.
These details are important, because it’s through the differences in fonts that the reader knows not only where Matt is but also how and when he is. Matt is a diagnosed schizophrenic (though he avoids using that term to describe himself); who tells his story moving backward and forward in time, and it takes the reader a while to realize that his writing on the old typewriter indicates a period when he’s becoming very sick and delusional, for example:
“Name: Matthew Homes
Diagnosis: The Slithery Snake
Current medication(s): The Works
Risk to Self/others (please provide vague, embellished examples presented as hard fact: […]”
and that the more modern font is the voice of a medicated Matt:
“This is more difficult than I thought. Thinking about the past is like digging up graves.
Once upon a time we buried memories we didn’t want. We found a little patch of grass at Ocean Cove Holiday Park, beside the recycling bins, or further up the path near to the shower blocks, and we kept hold of the memories we wanted, and we buried the rest.
But coming to this place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, spending half my life with NUTTERS like Patricia, and the Asian guy in the relaxation room, slyly pocketing pieces from the jigsaw puzzle and rocking backwards and forwards like he’s a pendulum, and the skinny BITCH who skips along the corridor singing God Will Save Us, God Will Save Us, when all I want to do is concentrate, but can’t because the stuff they inject makes me twitch and contort, and fills my mouth with so much saliva I’m actually drooling onto the fucking keyboard—I’m just saying this is harder than I thought.”
What the reader understands is that Matt’s suffering at the hands of his illness is soul-crushing, but also, that it reaches beyond his mental illness; that there is a deeper, more crippling pain that he and his mother and father also carry, and that it’s tied to older brother Simon’s accidental death, at the age of 9 (when Matt was just 7) at Ocean Cove Holiday Park. Because Matt is not the only Homes to have fallen there.
Matt writes from the Day Centre:
“Simon had hypotonia. He also had microgenia, macroglossia, epicanthic folds, an atrial septal defect, and a beautiful smiling face that looked like the moon. I hate this fucking place.”
And there, in a few simple phrases, is the great Gordian Knot of Matt’s anguish.
The Shock of the Fall is the story of a family’s grief that compounds over time. And yet, there is love, always. Matt’s mother is so traumatized by Simon’s death that she chooses to homeschool Matt—a promising student—for several years after, effectively cutting him off from the outside world, a choice full of foreshadowing. His father, who does everything in his power to hold his family together, almost always refers to his second son, affectionately, as mon ami. And Nanny Noo, Matt’s maternal grandmother, brings love and food (and a typewriter!) to Matt’s doorstep through thick and thin, and is the first to recognize his slipping away into madness.
It’s a beautiful story, full of hard truth but also hope. While the implacable fact of Matt’s mental illness can’t be wished away, there is always the possibility of some level of healing and redemption, if only in accepting that no burden has to be carried alone. As Matt reminds the reader, near the novel’s end:
“[…] think back through your own life, to when you were eight or nine years old. See if the memories you have are the ones you might expect. Or if they are fragments, dislocated moments, a smell here, a feeling there. The unlikeliest conversations and places. We don’t choose what we keep—not at that age. Not ever, really.”
NOTE TO READERS:
– Nathan Filer was awarded the 2013 Costa Book of the Year Prize and the Betty Trask Prize for The Shock of the Fall.
-The front matter of the novel reveals some interesting facts about the author:
“Nathan Filer is a writer and lecturer in creative writing at Bath Spa University. A registered mental health nurse, he has worked as a researcher in the academic unit of psychiatry at the University of Bristol and on in-patient wards. He is also a performance poet whose work is broadcast on television and radio.”
– Here are a couple of video links that might be of interest to you. Nathan Handler is so sympathetic, they’re worth viewing.
From his book launch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hi3cAgW3vcQ
About his book, at TED X: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMQGa6grfeE
– The following is a series of self-portraits by artist Bryan Charnley, who suffered from schizophrenia, painted over a period of a few months in 1991, that offer a glimpse into the suffering described by Matt Home, in The Shock of the Fall.