Jean Sergent reviews an exceptional new novel about mental illness, labels, and lovability.
It is strange, to love and be loved, when you are unsure of your reality. An emotional uncanny valley opens up in front of you and you push on, staying alive, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that the people who love you trust that you love them even if you aren’t sure you know how to show it.
Novels and memoirs about mental illness, especially in women, often have loving and lovability as their throughline. In New Zealand expat Meg Mason’s second novel, Sorrow and Bliss, this is Martha’s essential struggle. She lives inside a void, or maybe she is the void. Her artist mother, poet father, prolifically fertile sister, rich aunt, horrible first husband, and saintly second husband all compete for space in her head. They all love her – well, maybe not horrible Jonathan – and she loves them, but love is not enough.
She is ill. It isn’t her fault. Something has happened. A bomb has gone off in her head.
Trigger warning: loneliness, isolation, depression, anxiety, middle-class urban malaise.
Spoiler warning: she makes it out alive.
You should know that. Books about depression should carry the content note: “This book is about multiple complex mental illnesses but no one commits suicide.” I’d pick up a book that had that on the cover. On the first page of Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, the protagonist Esther Greenfield leaves the reader a small breadcrumb, in the shape of a plastic starfish, to let them know that she makes it out alive. There is hope for Esther, if not for Sylvia. You will survive the next 200 pages because you know somewhere in your subconscious that she will survive with you.
I love to read stories about mental illness, unhappiness, loneliness, desolation. I also love to read books about sickly yet beautiful women, brilliant underneath their frailties, the favourite person of all those who try to love them. It was my dearest wish to be a consumptive child, lying in a hospital bed, because if you’re in hospital everybody has to be nice to you and no one makes you clean your bedroom.
Sorrow and Bliss is a book so easy to read and become absorbed in that you’ll probably finish it in a day, unless like me you desperately don’t want it to end so you eke it out to the last syllable of recorded time and now you have to write about it but you just want to keep reading it.
It’s a book to read on holiday – not a beach holiday in the summertime, bare legs and mimosas; but a winter holiday at a wood-panelled AirBnB in Taupō, lying on a leather sectional under a sculpture made of old gardening implements.
Meg Mason writes a first-person unreliable narration the way you live a first-person unreliable life, in snippets and stories that make perfect contextual sense at the time but are missing some vital information. Your recollection of that Christmas, that dinner, that fight, that week, all those recollections are only your side of the story. The perspectives of whomever else was present is only available to you if you have the capacity to show curiosity.
Insight and perspective are skills we all have hopefully developed enough that we aren’t so completely and utterly solipsistic as to imagine that our inner life is exactly the same as everyone else’s, or that other people don’t really have an inner life. Martha Friel, the protagonist of Sorrow and Bliss, has been fundamentally blocked from empathising with the private world of another person. Not her sister, who is the love of her life, nor her husband (the second one, the good one), who has loved her his whole life.
The appearance of anyone outside of her family world is perceived by Martha as either a salvation – the first husband who provides her with love bombing and gaslighting, the gay older editor who provides her with an apartment in Paris – or suspicion: the woman across the road who seems to genuinely like her identical house, the woman at the event who seems confident in herself.
Maybe it’s just women that Martha is suspicious of. Perhaps there’s an undercurrent of the ways in which women are trained to view other women with suspicion, jealousy, or even hatred. To the unquiet mind, threat is ever-present. Her mother is too similar to the worst parts of her. Her sister is too similar only to her outer shell. Her aunt is too good, too forgiving, too kind.
Men – even very dangerous men – offer her solace, understanding, and allegiance. They don’t offer her help, they just offer her attention, or maybe more crucially inattention. “Feel free to avail yourself of another bedroom if this is going to be you, in perpetuity,” is her first husband’s point of view. Her father’s kindness, his everlasting loyalty and beleaguered tolerance, gives Martha space and time but doesn’t offer anything close to healing.
Her second husband – the good man, the doctor, the long sufferer – doesn’t cure her. He has known her all these years, he is a doctor for crying out loud, and yet he somehow missed it? Somehow missed that she’s so, so sick. Somehow he doesn’t help her.
Even through her sickness, it’s Martha who sees most clearly. She thinks: “She doesn’t want to be let go. People letting her go has become a theme. For once, she would like to be detained.”
“The thing about labels,” she tells her mother, “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.”
When someone you love is very ill, or very addicted, or god forbid very both, the goalposts shift. Behaviour that would ring alarm bells to strangers becomes normalised within the family or the relationship or the friendship. Badness or sadness or madness becomes themness.
Writing the sad bad mad one from her own viewpoint changes the reader’s relationship to those qualities. We become Martha because we are seeing the world through her eyes. We understand that she needs to hide on Christmas Day, that she needs to stay in bed for weeks after her honeymoon, because we are there with her and everything is just so hard. We know that sometimes “it’s like being on a bus and strangers either side of you suddenly start screaming at each other”.
Part of Mason’s genius is in the way that she slowly and softly turns us against Martha. Her behaviour becomes too bad, her helplessness too pathetic, her predicament too much of her own making. But then. Oh, but then. Then the bombshell drops.
Writing mental illness is one of those tricky things which is both objectively useful and subjectively terrifying. Useful, because we need more fiction that reflects the complex realities of living with mental illness. Terrifying, because what if you stuff it up? What if it hurts someone? What if it’s just really badly written, or spreads false information?
In reflecting on the experience of reading Sorrow and Bliss I keep coming back to the feeling that I was in it with Martha, and that I was feeling her experience along with her. Some people might read Sorrow and Bliss and hate Martha. There’s plenty to hate about her. Why can’t she just pull herself together? How hard is it to have a shower and leave the house? If you want a better life, can’t you just make your life better?
It’s why people hate Catcher in the Rye. That novel is inarguably brilliant, and rewards repeat readings. But Holden Caulfield is just such a dick. The Bell Jar is the same – Esther isn’t a dick, but that book can be a real drain on your emotional resources. I loaned my copy to a friend when we were about 19, and he read it in a couple of days and when he gave it back to me he threw it across the room.
Martha, like her creator, is a clever woman. As a fellow clever woman, I appreciated the exhaustion that comes with having your qualities mourned during those times when you’re mentally and physically incapable of utilising them.
“I found a book club and went to it. The women all had doctorates and did not know what to say when I told them I didn’t, as though I had just confessed to having no living relatives or an illness with a residual stigma during an introduction that was supposed to be super-speedy because there was so much to talk about in terms of the book.”
I live with a hefty combo of mental illnesses, all of which are under control thanks to a combination of the exact correct medication, years of therapy with the exact correct therapist, and having the alchemical resilience to find life endlessly rewarding even though when my agoraphobia kicks off I have to hold on to lamp posts so I don’t throw myself in front of cars.
If you live in a family where mental illness is prevalent, you’ll know the goalpost shifting that goes on, the learned helplessness, and the private despair. You’ll know the way that family members adjust their expectations to accommodate the ill party. Mental illness is a disability and as such accessibility should be considered.
But you’ll also know the way that an illness can take over the entire family culture. That more than one ill person in a family can feel they are in competition for sympathy, kindness, understanding, and accommodation. There are families where a parent’s illness means a child’s illness goes undetected, because that child has learned to be the parent. Or a child’s illness might suddenly blow the lid on generations of silence, bust the closet doors wide open, and start those skeletons dancing.
The third-act twist of Sorrow and Bliss untangles the mess with devastating aplomb. This is a novel and a story that won’t just appeal to clever women like me, like Mason, like Martha, like so many of the astonishing ill women that I know and admire. This is a story that will settle in the hearts and guts of anyone whose life has been touched by the devastation of not knowing exactly what is wrong, but hoping against hope that there is some way to fix it.
Meg Mason wrote an essay for us last week about her childhood in Foxton and Palmerston North, and the lasting influence of Janet Frame.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.