“This is my life,” Matthew Homes writes, about a quarter of a way into The Shock of the Fall. “I’m nineteen years old, and the only thing I have any control over in my entire world is the way I choose to tell this story.” It reads like it could be the first line of the book, but this is a somewhat fragmentary novel where arguably there are several beginnings, and also several endings (that aren’t necessarily endings), and they don’t always come in the right order. Matthew has schizophrenia, and the novel consists of his attempts to tell his story – attempts interrupted by bouts of psychosis, periods on a psychiatric ward, and annoying people looking over his shoulder (who get told where to go in the middle of his writing).
This isn’t really a novel about schizophrenia, however, any more than it is a novel about Down’s Syndrome, just because Matthew’s late older brother Simon had Down’s. Simon died in a terrible accident when Matthew was too young to properly understand it, too young to understand it wasn’t really his fault. This is a novel about grief, as experienced, explored and articulated by someone with a unique, idiosyncratic perspective on the universe. Despite its fragmentary nature, jumping backwards and forwards in time, it is still quite easy to read (even if it is not so easy to think about), helped by Matthew’s sometimes innocent (sometimes not) sense of humour. Everything eventually comes together, shaping itself into a coherent whole.
I hadn’t heard of The Shock of the Fall until it won the Costa Book of the Year Award last week. That’s my own fault, really. When I reviewed new fiction for the Metro I struggled to find nice things to say about dull novels because I thought they deserved a fair shot at finding their intended reader, even if that wasn’t me. With a few exceptions, most of what was being churned out in the name of modern literature was insipid at best, and utterly irrelevant at worst. At least as far as books for adults are concerned, I have fallen into the habit of mainly reading older books, and expecting the best of the new to catch up with me in the future. Of course, that way, missing good novels like this one becomes not only easy but inevitable.
Despite its frequently funny narrator, I found it quite a sad and not particularly hopeful read, and its brief final chapter about coming to terms with loss arrives a little too late to change that impression (even if Nathan Filer couches the last chapter as a beginning rather than an ending). That aside, whilst I haven’t read the rest of the books nominated for the Costa award so can’t say whether this one deserved to win, it certainly deserves to be read.