The Shock of the Fall has those raw, essential elements of a first novel. It is tinged with angst, unapologetically grit, and yet holds a particular poignancy. Perhaps even more poignant is the fact that it is not only the narrator’s first novel, but the first novel of the author, Nathan Filer – for which he received the Costa Prize.
The Costa Prize is relatively contemporary, and this is a mood Filer maintains within the novel – a contemporary and spontaneous approach through an unstable, haunted narrator recording his thoughts on a typewriter. This positioning of the narrator, Matthew, reveals he is so much more than a diagnosis, and thus in this, Filer combats common conceptions of mental illness. In actuality, there is no set point in the novel in which Matthew is formally diagnosed.
Ultimately, life is felt not in the formalities, but in the complications of sensation underneath. It is these sensations the character of Matthew evokes to great depth, especially in the recurring return of the narrative to his childhood. The novel opens with a sense of impersonality as Matthew recalls his experiences of ‘the girl and her doll’ – how his boyish self in a half-fear, half-curiosity pushes a little girl into the mud. In this light, the narrative could seem composed of fractured memories, but Filer writes with a cut-glass crispness which keeps the reader aware that there is something greater underneath.
Underlying Matthew’s every sensation is the death of his beloved brother Simon, who suffered from Downs Syndrome, and as the novel unfolds, so does the guilt and what Matthew really believes to be the ‘shock of the fall’ – the belief that he is responsible for his brother’s death.
The Shock of the Fall is ultimately an exploration of the indeterminacy of reality and how potentially terrifying it can be. Whether Matthew’s blame is wrongly placed we do not definitively know, just as we never definitively know what he is afflicted with – but what we are led to understand is that the mind itself is complex series of narratives and lasting impressions. Particularly profound is the interlinking of ‘the girl and her doll’ to the end of the novel, where the girl and her experiences with grief return to help Matthew potentially come to terms with his own misfortunes.
However, this is not only a novel about coming to terms with one’s past, but one that also focuses on coming of age, with a young narrator whose wry humour and ironic observations on the treatment of mental illness it is difficult to dislike. As the author Filer himself observed of his complicated protagonist, ‘I got to know him by spending time in his company’ and similarly, the reader is invited into the confusing array of experiences affecting him. This ranges from his absence from school and subsequent isolation, to his flat with a friend and later institutionalisation. We are invited to witness the human condition under various impressions of reality, just as Matthew himself creates hand written invitations in the closing pages, fondly addressing ‘To Nanny Noo and Grandad’.
Here we see a young man haunted by impressions of infancy, who manages to build upon this past to construct what could be a better future. It is both unnerving and incredibly beautiful.