I am conflicted about this book. Or perhaps confused. Maybe uncertain is a better word. The one thing I’m certain of is that it’s better than the average book but not by much.
The Shock of the Fall is told from Matthew’s point of view, although towards the end of the book he tells the reader that his name isn’t really Matthew. When he’s nine, his older brother dies in mysterious circumstances on a family holiday (mysterious only because the author chooses not to reveal how and why until later on in the book for no other reason than to keep the reader hanging on) and it’s the beginning of a downward spiral in Matthew’s mental health.
His mother pulls him out of school for a year and that contributes to the spiral, too. She home schools him and is convinced he’s constantly stricken with colds and infections, dragging him to the doctor over and over again when it’s clear there’s nothing physically wrong with him, or at least nothing that every other kid doesn’t go through at the same age. There was a while there that I thought it was going to end up being a story about Munchausen’s by Proxy.
Then Matthew goes back to school the next year where he apparently makes friends by spying on people and stabbing them in the back with implements commonly found in a high schooler’s pencil case. (Literally. He literally stabs a fellow classmate over and over in the back with a compass and then ends up becoming best friends with him.)
My confusion stems from the story beginning when Matthew is nine. Even though we later find out that he’s telling the story as an eighteen-year-old, he never stops sounding like a nine-year-old. And because of the nature of Matthew’s mental health condition, towards the end of the book I started wondering about the reliability of him as the narrator of his own story.
My conflict stems from the fact that the author is a mental health nurse, claims to be comparatively robust in the mental health department and then tries to tell the story of someone who is completely the opposite. While I encourage all writers to explore “the other”, to write about more than “what they know”, the book feels like a textbook example of someone with mental health problems rather than a unique story.
And my uncertainty stems from the narrative jumping around, back and forth between time periods, so I was never really sure about when everything was happening. I found myself continually thinking, “So is this before or after?” The sequencing was jumbled and while this might have been for effect, the ultimate result was merely muddled. There’s nothing wrong with a linear story. Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with a non-linear story as long as it’s written in a way the reader can clearly understand.
The confusion, conflict and uncertainty are all underlined by the fact that he does so many things that are like big neon signs saying, “Severely poor mental health indicator!” but nobody around him acts on them and gets him any help. His brother dies when he’s nine but there’s never any grief counselling. We find out he plays a small role in his brother’s death. Still no counselling. There’s a family history of mental health problems. Nope, nothing. He repeatedly stabs a fellow classmate with a compass. Suspension, yes. Mental health assessment, no. He begins smoking marijuana. His parents don’t like it but still nothing. At seventeen, he drops out of school and moves out of home. He gets a job as an aged care worker despite a complete lack of training. He freaks out at work one day and leaves in the middle of a night shift. But it’s not until his grandmother discovers him building a larger than life ant farm in the lounge room of his rented flat, which apparently has something to do with collecting atoms in an effort to bring his dead brother back to life, that he finally gets some help.
One of the downfalls of this book is that it tries to cover too much. Is it about grief? Is it about mental health issues? Is it about family? Is it about peer pressure? Is it a coming of age story? It tries to be about all of these things and ends up not addressing any of them adequately. Maybe it’s an accurate reflection of the real experience of someone who becomes familiar with death at a young age and is subsequently diagnosed with a mental health condition, but that doesn’t make it great literature.
I suspect this is the kind of book that readers with mental health problems of their own will enjoy or at least think is an important contribution but for those who don’t fall into that category, it isn’t much of an eye-opener. The writing itself is okay but I found myself comparing it to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and judging it a little lacking. Several of the reviews on the inside cover of the book call it funny but I didn’t find anything in it to laugh about.
The book was easy to read despite its faults. I just think it needed more focus and perhaps a little more refinement.
*First published on Goodreads 26 December 2015