Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
Published by W&N on 10th June
Available from West End Lane Books, All Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
Everyone tells Martha Friel she is clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer who has been loved every day of her adult life by one man, her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets.
So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – on the edge of 40 – friendless, practically jobless and so often sad? And why did Patrick decide to leave?
Maybe she is just too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most people. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain, at 17, and left her changed in a way that no doctor or therapist has ever been able to explain.
Forced to return to her childhood home to live with her dysfunctional, bohemian parents (but without the help of her devoted, foul-mouthed sister Ingrid), Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is ever too broken to fix – or whether, maybe, by starting over, she will get to write a better ending for herself.
What I Say
There are characters you meet when you are reading who instantly take a piece of your heart, and as soon as I met Martha Friel, I knew she was one of them. Flustered, unfocused and just separated from her husband Patrick, she has to move home to live with her parents. This may sound like a novel you have read many times before, but trust me, Sorrow and Bliss is a brilliant, beautiful and unique novel about love and family, motherhood and parenting and mental illness.
From the very start of the novel, it is clear that Martha has mental health issues, and has been dealing with them ever since she was seventeen years old when she was taking her A Levels. Martha ended up coming home and taking refuge under her father’s desk for three days, and from then on, her life has been punctuated by episodes that have impacted on her life and her family who have endlessly tried to help her.
Her father Fergus is a slightly well known poet, her mother Celia a sculptor, and her sister Ingrid is currently a stay at home Mum, married to Hamish whilst attempting to juggle looking after her children and keeping everyone else on the straight and narrow.
Thrown into the mix are Martha’s Aunt Winsome and her Uncle Rowland, who live in a beautiful house in Belgravia, in direct contrast to Fergus and Celia’s chaotic house in Shepherd’s Bush. It is there that every year they attempt to host impossibly perfect Christmases for the whole family. One Christmas, when Martha is 16, their son Oliver, brings his friend Patrick home from Boarding School. The family discover that Patrick’s Dad, enamoured with his latest wife, has neglected to organise a plane ticket for Patrick to fly home to Hong Kong, and from then on Patrick becomes part of the fabric of Martha’s family.
Patrick and Martha weave their way in and out of each other’s lives over the years, and each have been involved with other people, including Martha’s disastrous marriage to the hideous Jonathan. His penchant for white jeans and cocaine and an sneering contempt for her mental issues that the marriage is annulled. It is only when Patrick and Martha come together later on in life do they realise they are meant for each other and finally get married.
Martha is not always kind to those closest to her. She treats her family appallingly when they do not put her at the centre of their world, and Patrick is always there, doggedly attempting to keep Martha happy. Over the years, she has also never had a particularly close relationship with her mother, and there seems to be a disconnect between them, never quite knowing how to be together in that effortless way so many of us take for granted. It is her father and sister who are closest to Martha, and try to help her as best they can.
Ingrid and Martha’s incredibly close relationship is one of the many joys of this novel. Martha and Ingrid have that amazing sisterly shorthand, where they know each other so well that they are able to be incredibly honest with each other, but also understand what they both really want without having to say it. Their in-jokes, their shared history and often bewilderment at their parents will resonate with so many people, and will make you squirm with recognition and laugh out loud.
This novel was such a joy to read. There are undoubtedly really sobering moments of pain, and you absolutely feel Martha’s pain and bewilderment at not being able to explicitly state what she is going through. Meg Mason is incredible at articulating the experience if mental illness, and the way in which it permeates every part of Martha’s world constantly. The moment someone offers her their diagnosis that seems to explain what she has been going through, we as the reader are never told – it is always referred to as ‘- -‘. I thought it was a printing error, but then realised this was a clever device by Meg to ensure that we read about Martha and don’t bring our assumptions or preconceptions about conditions to our reading of the novel.
For me, something that also resonated with me was the way in which the impact of Martha’s mental issues on her family, but especially Patrick is depicted. Patrick completely loves Martha, and he repeatedly tries to stand by her and do everything in his power to be there for her, but she veers between contented and hateful, all the time needing Patrick to be there for her. To see them separate is heartbreaking, but to see Martha slowly realise what she has lost is even more upsetting. It is also incredibly touching to see that in her darkest days, it is her Mum who is finally able to connect with Martha again by literally encouraging her to put one foot in front of the other.
Sorrow and Bliss perfectly articulates so many things. What it means to be part of a family, and how wonderful, exhausting, flawed and thankless it can be at times. It is also a novel about the realities of love and marriage after the honeymoon period is over, and the decisions we make about whether or not we have children, and more importantly the fact that everyone else believes they have the right to comment on the choices people make.
However, for me, this novel is utterly and completely Martha’s story, and her voice is so captivating and unique, I promise you will love her and despair of her as much as I do. Put it this way, I loved this book so much I want to read it again very soon, and savour every page for a second time.
I absolutely and completely loved it.
Thank you so much to Gigi Woolstonecroft at W&N for my gifted proof copy.
You can buy your copy of Sorrow and Bliss from West End Lane Books here.