Sorrow and Bliss – we need to talk further

I have strong feelings about spoilers (just don’t). When reviewing a book, I err on the side of not saying much about the plot – that’s what blurbs are for and, if that’s not enough, you can head over to Goodreads where there’s always someone who has given a blow-by-blow account of the story.

As I’ve said previously, when I read a review, I want to know about how people felt when they read a particular book. Especially if they feel like this:

But sometimes you need to discuss a book, and that discussion involves a spoiler. I did it here (for The Other Typist).

And so….

There were elements of Meg Mason’s glorious, heart-breaking and funny novel, Sorrow and Bliss, that demand discussion.

If you haven’t read the book, go and do so.

If you have read it, you’ll know that I’m talking about the —.

In the story, Martha’s mental illness, which is not diagnosed until late in the book, is never named, but referred to as —. When I first saw this, I wondered if it was because I had a very early ARC, and perhaps there was some fact-checking still to be done.

And then I felt a little frustrated – what was she diagnosed with?! I wanted to know!

And then I thought that not labeling Martha’s illness was a deliberate creative decision, and by doing so, Mason forced me to think about the impact of labels, and particularly what they mean in terms of mental health. Really, what Martha ‘has’ is beside the point – what is important is how she lives, and how she relates to others.

The end of the book features this disclaimer:

In other words, stop trying to work out Martha’s diagnosis.

But I’m curious by nature (and in possession of a copy of the DSM), so I did speculate… and lots of the traits typical to bipolar are there. Theresa and I had a chat after we’d finished our ARCs, and she pointed out that possibly, by not naming Martha’s diagnosis, there’s the notion that what she has is ‘unmentionable’, which only perpetuates the stigma. Interesting.

So with thoughts about mental illness, labels, and stigma in mind, I was keen to hear Meg Mason speak. It was a Zoom author event, and as soon as the host said they were happy to take questions, I jumped in to ask about the ‘creative decision’ to not name Martha’s illness.

Mason said that she began writing Sorrow and Bliss with a condition in mind, but quickly ditched it because she didn’t want to “…badly describe someone’s experience, or diminish it.” She went on to say how that decision linked to the fact that Martha seeks a diagnosis for many, many years and in the interim, her relationships are impacted by her mental health –

“The reason I redacted it was that it didn’t matter. Plus, I wanted the reader to experience some of Martha’s frustration – it’s right there, but just out of grasp.”

Mason went on to say that by not naming the condition, more readers might identify with parts of Martha’s experience. I think Mason achieves this – a label leads you down a path of assumptions and generalisations. Instead, the reader shares Martha’s uncertainty, and it’s done exceptionally well.

What did you think of the use of the — in Sorrow and Bliss? Did it push you to think about the use of labels in regards to mental illness?

18 responses

  1. I like both of the reasons why she redacted the condition. She makes a good point. It also means you’re going to talk about it, either like we did, or in a book club, and that in turn moves conversations about mental illness into the realms of normal topics that we freely speak about. Which is only always good.
    Glad I was off base!

    • Was interesting to hear her talk about it, and at such length. I was walking with a friend a week ago who had just finished the book (of course, I had pressed it on her!). We talked about it for at least half an hour 🙂

      • I saw on a thread last night in the Primer bookclub on Facebook that one person felt the redaction spoilt the book for her, it annoyed her so much. I felt that was extreme as far as reactions go, but then upon deeper thought, I’ve probably disliked a book for something like that in the past as well. I guess it all comes down to the reading experience and what we want from the book.

  2. I love this book so much but the —- did bother me. I get the reason. It also it detracts from the story because of course you are curious and it was such a big deal to Martha.

  3. I felt the redaction was counterproductive and served to further stigmatize mental illness by treating it as something that *needs* to be redacted, like Voldemort or a swear word. As someone with bipolar disorder, it is quite clear that Martha has bipolar–the pills she is prescribed are the shape and color of Lithium, and it would make sense Patrick would know she had bipolar if he saw she was taking Lithium. The book is called “Sorrow and Bliss” aka “Fire and Rain”, two poles? Bipolar depression is very physical–not being able to sit up and feeling like your whole body and mind have grinded to a halt. Mania and hypomania involved agitation, emotional reactivity, and impulsivity (throwing things at Patrick) and talking rapidly (Martha’s interaction with her Oxford neighbor) and bursts of creativity (we get glimpses of Martha’s wittiness and abilities as a writer throughout.) I’ll stop there for brevity.

    There is so much misunderstanding about what bipolar really is that it would be incredible to have a book that shows so well how the illness can manifest and how devastating it is to live with. But the fact that the book redacted the name of her illness meant that more people won’t be able to figure out what the hell is wrong with them that their life keeps imploding. So the book is perpetuating the problem Martha faced. As someone who struggled for years through multiple breakdowns and bad reactions to various medications because of misdiagnosis, I could sympathize with Martha’s experience.

    Living with an undiagnosed, untreated (or incorrectly treated) mental illness is traumatic, frustrating, and devastating, and it sabotages your career, dreams, and relationships. When I figured out I had bipolar, I, like Martha, felt incredibly relieved to finally have an explanation for my life struggles. So much clicked into place. I was lucky to be diagnosed much earlier than Martha, but living without that diagnosis had already taken its toll. That’s why I think the redaction is such a big deal…leaving “bipolar” in there could save lives. I realize that sounds dramatic, but helping people realize “hey, maybe I have this…” can lead them to treatment that can stabilize them and prevent suicidal ideation. It can prevent people who have bipolar from being prescribed antidepressants which cause rapid cycling and mixed manic episodes in which a person becomes suicidal (probably what Martha experienced.)

    Enough of my rambling, I sincerely hope the author reconsiders the redaction if there’s a reprint, or even comes out and says what the disorder she meant is.

    • Oh how interesting. I’m sorry you had to struggle with bi polar. What you wrote just there is very moving. My impression is that she almost didn’t have the confidence to name the illness, not having suffered from it herself. A kind of misappropriation if you will. But if you identified so readily it means she has in fact done a reallly good job of describing it. So much so that you wouldn’t be offended by it. I can totally understand that e wouldn’t have wanted to get this wrong as it’s such a serious matter. Maybe you could write to Meg Mason directly. Best of luck

    • I agree with this because in the book Martha is so upset that this particular mental disorder had been mentioned before to her mother who kept it from her and how much that made her feel misunderstood, to others but also to herself. It made her feel bad about herself and then this very same book also keeps the particulat mental condition from us. So the novel perpetuates the same thing that makes martha feel misunderstood, lost and make herself and others judge her badly? Bring it to the light. Thats all i can say. I dont have bipolar but have multiple family members who have it and how hard it is on those suffering but also family members worried about them. I think if you know ppl woth bipolar redacting this label seems so stupid and keeps it in the dark more. And if its meant to be another mental illness then its even more confusing not being clear so we are all still in the dark and not towards understanding. It also seemed super immature to me the 2 lines.

    • I have bipolar, I hated the ending because of this. The symptoms are obvious, and to have the author treat it as a condition so much worse than unipolar depression yet unmentionable, it did feel very stigmatising.

  4. For me, it was very frustrating. Describing a condition for more than 60% of the book and then not naming it. Naming it would actually help people be more thoughtful. Why write the book and then not name it. Just don’t get it.

  5. I loved the book but found it incredibly annoying that the illness wasn’t named. Even Martha herself says: “The thing about labels is they’re very useful when they’re right …because then you don’t give yourself wrong ones, like insane, or psychotic, or bad wife.”

  6. the “want” is way more powerful and activating than the knowing. we are conditioned to think it’s “bad” when we don’t get everything we want, but having every itch scratched for us is, in reality, dull and unfulfilling. the not exactly knowing is what keeps us thinking about all facets of the story, not just the diagnosis. its okay and sometimes even better not to get everything we want. it’s a brilliant choice.

  7. I think it is is lazy writing not to mention the illness, as Martha not knowing the ‘label’ for her illness caused her great distress, and I’m sure many reader’s not knowing means that they are not going to learn about the specific condition traits in context of the character, and experience confusion and mystery which could only intensify existing stigma for all mental illnesses overall.

  8. The ‘not naming’ the condition is a huge flaw in the novel. As if Martha
    would not tell her husband, himself a doctor, about the diagnosis, especially because apparently, it was so clear to diagnose, and she uses this to justify an extra layer of hating her husband – because he didn’t diagnose it himself. As readers, we are supposed to swallow this, as justification for her extra layer of hating her husband, without being told what it is, or having anything to substantiate whether her husband might have known what it was, maybe all along, for all we know as readers. If, indeed it was much different from any generalized type of extreme depression-type disorder that many people are given as a diagnosis. The novel was difficult enough to ”hang in there with” as a reader, because the basic narrative, the story of Martha’s life and break-up with her second husband, just went on and on and could have ended almost anywhere really, To find out, 70% of the way in, that _ _ was a key component, was ridiculous. I felt cheated as a reader and simply abandoned the book.

  9. Pingback: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason — life blighted by mental health disorder : BookerTalk

  10. I was ambivalent about not naming the specific condition, I can see that the gravity and responsibility of it might be something that the author felt unqualified to take on board.

    What did bother me was the “finally get a diagnosis, get a magic pill, and suddenly the problem (if not the repercussions from times past) basically goes away and you’re now fine” approach. It felt very simplistic and ableist. Disappointed.

  11. I find this a deeply depressing read, what am I missing re the incredibly funny part?? I could feel her disappointment and frustrations but found her self absorbed, hateful and deliberately mean…Subconsciously hating herself but projecting on everyone else.Yes she had an illness, but she was given so much rope, what was the purpose of the book? To educate about mental illness, it failed other than to give readers an insight perhaps to how that appears, and the impact on others, that humans are vulnerable, her mother is human, fallible and redeemable..Very frustrating to read.

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