Book Review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

This novel is a very intimate look at someone’s mental illness, which could in itself drive the reader into a depressed state if it weren’t for the scintillating prose which is a times laugh-out-loud funny. Martha Friel is turning forty at the beginning of the book, her marriage crumbling around her, as she looks back at her life to pinpoint the moments of significance to try and make sense of it all.

She is the child of eccentric parents. Her mother is a sculptor of minor significance who drinks a lot and drives her father, a poet who cannot quite bring himself to publish a long awaited collection, to leave them. You could say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when you look at Martha and her mother, who is difficult and at times cruel. But her father always returns, shutting himself away in his study among his books and poetic thoughts. Martha has a sister, Ingrid, who manages to lead a more balanced life, marrying Hamish and producing unplanned-for children with alarming regularity.

Then there is Aunt Winsome and Uncle Rowland who live in Belgravia and have funded Martha’s parents’ house and the girls’ schooling because being an unpublished poet and a sculptor of minor significance is no way to support a family. There are cousins, Nicholas, Oliver and Jessamine, as well as Oliver’s friend Patrick who’s father lives in Hong Kong and who has nowhere else to go at Christmas. As well as the closeness between the two sisters, much of the story is that of Patrick and Martha’s relationship.

That is what life was, and how it continued for three years after that. The ratios changing on their own, broken, completely fine, a holiday, a leaking pipe, new sheets, happy birthday, a technician between nine and three, a bird flew into the window, I want to die, please, I can’t breathe, I think it’s a lunch thing, I love you, I can’t do this any more, both of us thinking it would be like this forever.

Martha’s terrible rages, her problems with sounding normal at work or at parties, her unreliability, her snarky remarks, make her difficult to get on with and yet she inspires great affection from those who make the effort. She’s smart and shows odd moments of empathy.

The reason I had gone to London was for Peregrine’s funeral.
He had fallen down the central staircase at the Wallace Collection and died when he struck his head on a marble newel post at the bottom. One of his daughters gave the eulogy and looked earnest when she said it was exactly how he would have wanted to go. I wept, realising how much I loved him, that he was my truest friend, and that his daughter was right. If it hadn’t been him, Peregrine would have been acutely jealous of anyone who got to die dramatically, in public, surrounded by gilt furniture.

And while we get to see what Martha’s unspecified condition looks like, and the difficulties of getting appropriate medical help, the novel also gives thought to what makes people happy, the simple things often that people take for granted. Maybe it’s only when life is at its darkest, that you get to really understand this. I loved the characters in particular. Martha’s family are individually either odd or difficult, but they are all interesting and have their redeeming points. Patrick has his own sorrows – his lack of family, his struggles with his problematic love for Martha.

Meg Mason writes with such flair and understanding I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed Sorrow and Bliss. It is one of those funny/sad books, which can be entertaining and profound in equal measure. Mason is a New Zealand born author who lives in Sydney and this is her first book published in Britain. It is easily one my favourite reads for the year and really deserves its five out five from me.

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