After a run of pretty heavy going yet still inspiring non-fiction reads, I was determined to plump for a novel that would be easier on the eye for the next book I was to open for the late summer of 2021.
I first heard Meg Mason (2021), “Sorrow and Bliss“, London: Weidenfield and Nicolson enthusiastically recommended as one of the books of the year in a discussion between the literary editors of The Times and The Sunday Times on Times Radio.
Further investigation revealed numerous reviews and interviews, with the book garnering near universal in reviews, for example in the Guardian (Julie Myerson, 31 May, 2021); (Clare Clark, 5 June, 2021) and (Alex Clark, 11 June, 2021). Despite the book centring around what should be an unsympathetic main character’s grappling with a presumed mental health condition, and charting the throes of her familial, romantic and professional relationships during the course of her life, it even gets to be recommended as ‘beach reading’.
I’d originally been drawn to the book by the pitch given by some reviewers on the nature of the relationship between the two sisters. I’d assumed it was going to be as simple as one nasty, one nice – a case of Bette Davis would have been perfect to play one of them if the book reached the big screen. When it came it, reading the book, it’s much more complex, but the beauty and depth in which it explores sibling, parental and other extended family relationships meant I was not disappointed – indeed, I loved the book. It was well observed throughout, sharp, and so well written.
I love this line, where the main character Martha’s cousin Jessamine is talking about the first time she went into the centre of London of an evening as a teenager. Her Mum was supposed to pick her up, and she didn’t show for an hour – most out of character – and up until that point, Jessamine’s main thought was that her Mum must be dead, as well as being scared of the late night city streets. She asks Martha if she knows that feeling you get when you finally see someone in such circumstances. Martha knows exactly how she felt. The conversation is taking place at her sister’s wedding reception, and she retraces how she felt when she looked back across the church earlier that day as she walked her sister up the aisle, to see Patrick, the man she had known most of her life – the man she knows she should have married rather than Jonathan – was there was in the congregation.
‘Martha, do you know what I’m talking about?’
I said yes. Thank God is how I felt when I saw Patrick that day. Not a thrill or affection or pleasure. Visceral relief.
That feeling was made so real!
“Sorrow and Bliss” is populated by a motley collection of characters from the mid to upper echelons of the social strata, all of whom you are rooting for in one way or another at some point in the book, despite their weaknesses and transgressions – well, all except the main character Martha’s first husband Jonathan who is completely gross, but elegantly skewered in description.
I was gripped, and devoured the book in no time – I am usually a fairly slow reader due to double vision and nystagmus associated with my own head condition I nickname ‘George’ (see below), so no mean feat. Martha’s predicament is said to be down to a ‘bomb going off’ in her head in her late teens. She never quite gets a diagnosis for it until mid-life, but in the meantime, hides behind its symptoms, and uses it to blame so much of her predicament on it, and as well other people’s ways of dealing with it, rather than reflecting on her own behaviour.
I had also been fascinated by the focus on Martha’s illness, having had brain surgery for a neurological condition in my late 20s, and then been medically retired by the age of 50. The symptoms of the condition dominated my teenage years and early twenties, and a number of my GPs would not ‘indulge’ me, saying it was merely stress, and my symptoms psychological. It wasn’t until I was almost 27 years old that I finally received a diagnosis of ‘Chiari Malformation‘ (aka ‘George’) – my brain was protruding through the base of my skull, the symptoms were real and I had surgery.
The book doesn’t dwell on medical labels, and is all the stronger for such an approach. Perhaps I’d opened the book up expecting to read something more akin to Simon Hattenstone’s “Out of It”, a brutally honest account of his battle to get years of serious childhood symptoms diagnosed as encephalitis. I remember “Out of It” having a profound effect on me when it was first published in 1999, two years after my brain surgery.
Thankfully, while still being an exploration of the illness that engulfs somebody’s brain, this novel operates on so many levels about the modern condition. It reads so well, and kept me captivated. If you ever need to find a book to help someone you know rekindle a love of reading, try this.
Buy the book: from bookshop.org