When I saw Silver Linings Playbook a couple of years ago, in which one of the main characters is bipolar, I left the theater completely exhausted. The up-and-down mania was so well played that I felt I’d just experienced the episodes firsthand.
I felt the same way after finishing The Shock of the Fall.
Narrated by Matthew Homes primarily from his stay in a mental institution, we learn that he’s never gotten over the sudden and strange death of his brother, Simon, who had Down Syndrome. In fact, it might have been Simon’s accident that spurred Matthew’s own neurosis, but that’s never made entirely clear.
When I say the story is narrated by Matthew, it is indeed written in first person, but based on Matthew’s mental state, I was never sure if his version of the story was true, embellished, or a version that exists only in his head. Some bits are told in the traditional straightforward manner, and others are told haphazardly, via typewriter in his room at the institution, where he’s vowed to get out all of his words and explain the last decade to us.
But his words are all over the place. It’s clear early on that Matthew is sick, and for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll leave it that.
We meet Matthew’s parents, who are strangely, oddly at ease with their son’s neurosis, and his one friend, Jacob, who doesn’t seem to mind Matthew’s violence and overlooks other oddball behaviors that scare away everyone else.
There are a number of nurses and institution employees (not nearly as entertaining as they are in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) who pop in and out of the story, but even then I couldn’t fully rely on Matthew’s interpretation of events. After every chapter (if you could call them chapters), I wondered, “Was that real or imagined?”
This isn’t to say the book is bad. In fact, it’s won plenty of accolades to prove its genius. The author, Nathan Filer, worked in a mental hospital, an insight that showed itself throughout the story. No, it’s not bad, but it’s hard. It’s not an easy beach read; it’s not a book to breeze through. If you are interested in reading a truly unique work and have a dual interest in mental illness expressed through fiction, then this book is for you.
Random note: The story is set in Bristol, and even though the narrative isn’t fraught with English culture, one thing that stood out to me several times was Matthew’s references to the board game Snakes & Ladders. If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “You mean Chutes & Ladders? That preschool game that never ends because as soon as you reach the top of the board you land on a slide and go back to the start?” Yeah, that game.
After a quick Googling, I learned that Chutes & Ladders originated in India as Snakes & Ladders, a far scarier version that I would’ve hated even more than the Americanized version. SNAKES & Ladders. Sliding down the backs of SNAKES is not my idea of fun.
So there you go.