You might be surprised to know that I rarely get so engrossed in a book that I’m reading for hours – I think there’s an assumption that people who ‘read lots of books’ devote great rafts of time to the pursuit. I wish that were the case! In reality, my reading is done in short bursts – ten minutes at breakfast and lunch, a couple of five minute ‘power-reads’ during the day, and then half an hour before I sleep. But occasionally, I have to put everything on hold because I’ve become absolutely engrossed in a book. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason was such a book.
It’s the story of Martha. Martha knows there is something wrong with her but she doesn’t know what it is. Her husband, Patrick, thinks she is fine, and that the important thing is that life carries on –
‘Martha… everything is broken and messed up, and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change. Usually on their own. As soon as you think that’s it, it’s going to be like this forever, they change again.’
Patrick’s response to Martha’s struggle is borne from his love for her, rather than pig-headed denial, and much of the emotional energy in the story is directed toward the particular issue of wanting to be ‘well’ for the people we love; and the feelings of guilt and anxiety that go along with that.
I was desperate to cancel. But he bought a Lonely Planet. He had been reading it in bed every night and as ill and scared as I was, I couldn’t bear to disappoint someone whose desires were so modest they could be circled in pencil.
The history of Martha’s mental illness is revealed through a series of vignettes about her teenage years, which illustrate the delicate relationships she has with her parents, her sister Ingrid, and her extended family. The plot becomes more complex when Martha does find out what is ‘wrong’ with her; reflects on her first, toxic and short-lived marriage to a man named Jonathan; and struggles with her decision about having children.
This is a book I will be pressing on people for many reasons. First and foremost, a story that makes me laugh and cry in equal measure will always top my list. The humour is dark and wry, and mostly expressed through particular characters, notably Ingrid –
Ingrid got engaged to Hamish…. She said, ‘Fucking finally’ and told me that I had to come home so we could workshop bonbonniere for five years or however long it would be before they actually got married. She said, obviously she wanted me to be her bridesmaid. ‘But it’s contingent upon your weight obviously. You have to be fatter than me on the day.’
Alongside the humour are the heartbreaking truths. There are many stories about mental illness, however, Mason’s focus on its impact on family relationships sets this book apart. After almost ending her own life, Martha says –
Here are the reasons I went back inside. Because I did not want people to think my father was not a good parent. I did not want Ingrid to fail her exams. I did not want my mother to one day make art out of it.
That will sound glib to some, and very real to others.
Additionally (and without spoilers), Mason handles Martha’s diagnosis in a way that forces the reader to question their own assumptions about mental illness, and the stigma attached to a health problem that can’t be ‘seen’.
I was the victim, and victims, of course, are allowed to behave however they like. Nobody can be held to account as long as they’re suffering…
Secondly, the characters are wonderful and so thoroughly imagined – small details speak to their relationship with Martha. Of her friend Peregrine, Martha says –
…he was thrilled by my brushes with insanity. He said he did not trust anyone who hadn’t had a nervous breakdown – at least one – and was sorry his own was thirty years ago and, so conventionally, following a divorce.
There are highlights, notably the family Christmases at Martha’s Aunt Winsome’s. Winsome is a complex character and Mason’s slow reveal is exceptionally good, and again points to the way that families, as a unit, accommodate.
But Ingrid steals the show – she’s emotionally smart, straight-forward, and sees Martha in a way that is unique to siblings. The banter between the sisters, and their short-hand history and familiarity, made me envious of their relationship –
In the moment of waiting to go into the church, my sister turned back to me and said, ‘I’m going to do Princess Diana walking.’
‘I’ve come this far Martha.’
Lastly, Mason writes extraordinarily well. She captures the complexities and contradictions in people, the sorrows and the bliss.
Peregrine put his palms on the table. He said Paris, Martha. ‘Please go to Paris… Because when suffering is unavoidable, the only thing one gets to choose is the backdrop. Crying one’s eyes out beside the Seine is a different thing to crying one’s eyes out while traipsing around Hammersmith …I’m not being whimsical, Martha. Short another, beauty is a reason to live.’
5/5 Without question, one of the highlights of my reading year.
I received my copy of Sorrow and Bliss from the publisher, Harper Collins Australia, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
They stood around and drank Negronis – 2017 was ‘the year of the Negroni‘- and laughed very loudly and made impromptu speeches… I found an ambulant toilet and cried in it.
Ingrid told me fragapane phobia is the fear of birthdays. It was the fun fact from the peel-off strip from sanitary pads,which she says are her chief source of intellectual stimulation at this point, the only reading she gets time for.