Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

"The Shock of the Fall" by Nathan Filer (HarperCollins, 2013)

Spoiler Alert

At the start the narrator, Matthew, 9 years old at the time, sees a little girl, Annabelle, bury a ragdoll. A few days later Matthew's older brother Simon, who has developmental problems, dies. We're not given the details, so we fear the worst. 200 pages and a decade later, Matthew absconds from a mental hospital and returns to the scene. We've just learnt about the circumstances of Simon's death - that Matthew had made his brother leave the caravan in the night, then scared him by digging up a "dead" doll. Matthew intends to kill himself. A passerby notices him, is concerned about him. Thinking that she's Annabelle (she is), Matthew recalls the buried doll and begins to mourn his brother. Annabelle tells him that the doll represented her deceased mother, that a policeman visited her and her father to say that the doll was found under Simon's head. This resurrection triggered her and her father to discuss her mother's death for the first time.

That's the plot. I suppose it's needed. The conceit is that it really happened, that this book's the evidence. Some of the letters are handwritten. When Matthew's given a typewriter, the font becomes fixed width. When he's given the user name and password ("Writer_In_Residence") for a computer the font returns to normal. There are hand-drawn pictures ("Drawing is a way to be somewhere else" (p.202)) and family trees. The page numbers look hand-written. The narrator writes "Was it Alex? it doesn't matter, because I've changed all the names anyway. Nobody in this story has their real name. I wouldn't do that to people. Even Clare-or-maybe-Anna is between two other names I can't decide. You don't think I'm really called Matthew Homes do you? You don't think I'd just give away my whole life to a stranger?" (p.274).

Here are examples of the self-consciously narrating voice

I'll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name's Simon. I think you're going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he'll be dead. And he was never the same after that. (p.5)
Then a really funny thing happened. Do you remember Steve? I only mentioned him that once. He was the one who gave me the teaching session on this computer. I said that I probably wouldn't mention him again. Well, he came into the office (p.30)

It's become a familiar voice in literature, and it comes as no surprise that he's good at schoolwork, or creates a "Wasp Factory" device. So what's Matthew's problem?

I have an illness, a disease with the shape and sound of a snake. Whenever I learn something new, it learns it too ... Meningitis doesn't know anything. But my illness knows everything that I know. This was a difficult thing to get my head around but the moment I understood it, my illness understood it too. (p.67)

It runs in the family

[Nanny Noo's] brother has a disease, an illness with the shape and sound of a snake. It slithers through the branches of our family tree. It must have broken her heart, to know I was next (p.166)

On p.280 there's a self-diagnosis - "As a small boy I killed my own brother, and now I must kill him again. I'm given medicine to poison him, then questioned to make sure he's dead". On p.168 he finds a newly-written letter from his dead brother, which triggers a breakdown. It's schizophrenia with some fugue elements and hallucinations

she came back in with a chocolate birthday cake and eighteen flicking candles. Everyone broke out in a loud chorus of Happy Birthday. Simon joined in too.
He was in the flames.
Of course he was in the flames.
A nurse grabbed hold of my wrist, leading me quickly to the clinic where she held my blistering fingers under the cold tap. I had no idea why I'd done, only that I had been trying to hold him
... In time, Simon grew more distant. I looked in the rain clouds, fallen leaves, sideways glances. I searched for him in the places I had come to expect him. In running water. In spilled salt. I listened in the spaces between words.

Hallucinating's not so bad though -

I didn't tell you where I live yet.
It probably doesn't matter, but I'll tell you now, because then you can have some pictures in your mind as you read. Reading is a bit like hallucinating.
Hallucinate this

The language is sometimes more elevated than one might expect -

Then he took his regional accent to meet a group of squealing girls - prising one away for the obligatory interview (p.97)

Sometimes there's a passage that's immediately discredited. For example, on p.146 there's "Ha// It's make believe, that's all. After Jacob left I imagined going home. But I never did that."

Each section (and there are many of them) is started on a new page, so there's a lot of white space.

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