Book Review: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

What is most shocking about The Shock of the Fall, Nathan Filer’s debut novel, is how it transforms the stereotypical conception of the novel into something new, saddening, breath-taking and, SHOCK-OF-THE-FALL1ultimately, uplifting.

“PLEASE STOP READING OVER MY SHOULDER. She keeps reading over my shoulder. It is hard enough to concentrate in this place without people reading over your shoulder. I had to put it in big letters to drive the message home. It worked, but now I feel bad about it. It was the student social worker who was looking over my shoulder, the young one with the minty breath and big gold earrings. She’s really nice.”

Matthew Holmes is nineteen and haunted. He’s haunted by what he remembers –his brother Simon’s death at the bizarrely sinister Ocean Cove Holiday Park in Dorset – and what he can’t – his role in it. He’s haunted by the voice inside his head that refuses to shut up. He’s haunted by the violence that he fears lingers beneath his skin. But, mostly, he’s haunted by words. “Mental illness turns people inwards – I’m stuck looking inwards. Nearly every thought I have is about me – this whole story has been all about me; the way I felt, what I thought, how I grieved.”

And this is where Filer concocts something teetering on the brink of genius. The Shock of the Fall breaks rules, successfully. It is the rarest of books – one that mixes intimate knowledge of its subject matter with an intense respect for its readers, without ever feeling too weighty or bogged down. It’s an absolute joy to read and to think about, with Matthew being at turns hilarious and thought provoking.

“This voice – his voice – do you hear it inside your head, or does it seem to come from the outside, and what exactly does it say, and does it tell you to do things or just comment on what you’re doing already, and have you done any of the things it says, which things, you said your mum takes tablets, what are they for, is anyone else in your family FUCKING MAD…”

Like the greatest of comedians, Filer has found humour in the saddest scenario. It has been a long time since this reviewer has read a novel that challenges perceptions of what a novel can do in quite the same way that The Shock of the Fall does. Filer uses different fonts, sketches, alternating rhythms, voices, to reveal the assumptions in daily life – how do we construct memory? Are we defined by our thoughts and actions? Is where we come from to blame for who we are? Is Matthew’s schizophrenia something that only the mentally ill suffer? Are those in care treated with the respect and love they deserve? Can they borrow a dictionary, for example, or use a computer?

Lofty goals, indeed, but all wonderfully explored in the most accessible way. Filer mixes the academic’s ability for observation with a thriller’s nose for a hook. In the background, Filer deals with the greater social implications of his topic – fund cutting. Matthew, fellow “Service Users” and nurses face being abandoned into the word due to an NHS wide “scaling back.” It’s a topic Filer, as a registered mental health nurse himself, knows too well and it’s to his credit that he covers a gravely serious topic without allowing it to feel preachy or polemic.

“HELLO my name is Simon Holmes. But you can me your Brother. I’m scared you will forget me. That’s what happens to the people here. We are forgotten. I hate it. Do you remember what we used to do in the mornings? We hid behind the door until dad came in and then we wrestled him to the ground. That was fun. We had lots of fun. I didn’t think you would ever forget. I carried you up the cliff at Ocean Cove. It was hard but I did it and you were proud of me. I’m not going to let you forget me Matthew. I’m never going to let you forget me. You have to come and play.”

Forget comparisons to Mark Haddon (as if mental illness and autism can be so easily conflated), The Shock of the Fall has it roots in Nabokov. Matthew’s memory speaks with flair and pathos and it will simply be devoured by all who read it.

The Shock of the Fall was published in May 2013.