The Shock of the Fall has all the raw, essential elements of a first novel. It is tinged with angst, unapologetically gritty and yet holds a particular poignancy. Perhaps even more poignant is the fact that it is not only the narrator’s first novel, but the first novel of the author Nathan Filer, who won the Costa Prize for this book. The Costa Prize is relatively contemporary, and Filer maintains this mood within the novel – a contemporary and spontaneous approach through an unstable, haunted narrator recording his thoughts on a typewriter. This positioning of the narrator, Matthew, reveals that he is so much more than a diagnosis; thus, Filer combats common conceptions of mental illness. In actuality, there is not set point in the novel in which Matthew is formally diagnosed.

Ultimately, life is felt not in the formalities, but in the complications of sensation underneath, and it is these sensations that the character of Matthew evokes to great depth, especially through the recurring return of the narrative to his childhood. The novel opens with a sense of impersonality as Matthew recalls his experiences of ‘the girl and her doll’ – how his boyish self in a burst of half-fear, half-curiosity pushes a little girl into the mud. In this light, the narrative could seem composed of fractured memories, but Filer instead writes with a cut-glass crispness that keeps the reader aware of something greater underneath. Underlying Matthew’s every sensation is the death of his beloved brother Simon, who was born with Downs Syndrome, and as the novel unfolds, so does Matthew’s guilt and what he understands as the ‘shock of the fall’ – the belief that he is responsible for his brother’s death.

The Shock of the Fall is ultimately an exploration of the indeterminacy of reality and how potentially terrifying it can be. We never discover if Matthew’s self-blame is wrongly placed, just as we never definitively know what he is afflicted with – but what we are led to understand is that the mind itself is a complex series of narratives and lasting impressions. Particularly profound is the interlinking of ‘the girl and her doll’ to the end of the novel, where the girl and her experiences with grief return to help Matthew come to terms with his own sorrow.

Yet this is not only a novel of coming-to-terms but also one of coming-of-age with a young narrator whose wry humour and ironic observations on the treatment of mental illness it is difficult to dislike. As Filer himself observed of his complicated protagonist,  ‘I got to know him by spending time in his company’, and the reader is similarly invited into the confusing array of experiences affecting Matt – from his absence from school and subsequent isolation, to his living in a flat with a friend, to his later institutionalisation. We are invited to witness the human condition under various impressions of reality, just as Matt himself creates handwritten invitations in the closing pages, fondly addressing ‘To Nanny Noo and Grandad’. Here we see a young man haunted by impressions of infancy, yet increasingly building upon this past to construct what could be a better future. It is both unnerving and incredibly beautiful.

 

 

Emily Oldfield