Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason — life blighted by mental health disorder

Cover of Sorrow and Bliss, a novel about mental illness by Meg Mason

Widely praised for its sensitive handling of a woman’s mental health issues, Sorrow and Bliss is also a novel that has sharply divided opinions among its readers.

Fans of Meg Mason’s novel thought it was funny, tender and original. “An incredibly funny and devastating debut,” said The Guardian; “… fantastically dark and almost unbearably funny,” said The Times reviewer while The Sunday Times described the book as a “heart-thuddingly moving portrait of family, marriage and chronic illness.”

But other readers found the humour irritating and were frustrated by the author’s radio silence on the precise nature of her narrator’s medical condition.

I’m in the latter camp.

Sorrow and Bliss is a tale of Martha Friel and the illness that defined her life. It began at the age of 17 when “ a little bomb went off in my brain” . She’s been on antidepressants ever since, struggling through episodes which leave her seeking refuge in dark spaces for many weeks.

As soon as I got home, I went upstairs and got into the space under my desk and sat still like a small animal that instinctively knows it’s dying. I stayed there for days, coming down for food and the bathroom, and eventually just the bathroom.

Since then, she’s consulted doctor after doctor, the diagnosis different each time but always with the same outcome: take these tablets and don’t get pregnant.

Now in her 40s her life has reached a crisis.

Devoted husband Patrick, who has only ever wanted her to be happy, has just moved out. He’s left after all the years of coping with Martha’s need for constant support, her rages, depression and suicidal impulses.

She moves back to her parent’s house in London to reflect on a life of battles with mental illness, her problematic relationship with her mother and what ultimately made her marriage disintegrate.

An observer to my marriage would think I have made no effort to be a good or better wife. Or, seeing me that night, that I must have set out to be this way and achieved it after years of concentrated effort. They could not tell that for most of my adult life and all of my marriage I have been trying to become the opposite of myself.

It’s a very keenly observed novel, particularly when it shows the impact of mental illness on the sufferer as well as their friends and family.

Martha is a hard character to like; she’s a pain to live with, even when not in one of her bad spells. Her reaction to the birthday party Patrick organises, is enough to make you wince. Yet her descriptions of how her illness just takes over her whole body are so evocative, it’s hard not to feel sympathetic.

It felt like pressure building up in my skull, like air being pumped and pumped in, until it’s hard like a tyre, but still more air pushes in and it begins to hurt so much, knife-hot and migrainous, that you imagine a fissure in the hard bone becoming a crack and the air finally rushing out and the relief from the pain.

Now this doesn’t sound like rich material for comedy does it? Yet Sorrow and Bliss tries to wrest humour out of this most unlikely of circumstances. It’s humour essentially of the dark, bleak kind, delivered often in rapid one-liner dialogue.

Unsubtle humour

And therein lay problem number one for me with this novel.

While I enjoyed much of it — most notably the relationship Martha has with her failed poet father, and her fecund younger sister — I lost patience with the comic overtone. Halfway through the novel, I’d had enough of Martha thinking she is being supremely witty.

She’s nowhere near as funny as she thinks she is, either in her monologue about her life or the food column she writes. As an example, we learn that she hates the fact her editor takes out all the jokes. “He would send me notes saying: ‘not getting this ref’; and ‘rephrase if poss’.” she tells us in deadpan voice. Then we get the pay off: “According to LinkedIn, my editor was born in 1995.” . No doubt she and Meg Mason think that’s awfully witty but to me it sounded lame and predictable.

Problem number two is a bigger frustration.

The Condition That Has No Name

Martha does eventually get an answer to the question that she’s wrestled with for most of her life: Why am I like this? But Meg Mason choses not to share Martha’s diagnosis with the reader. We just get a series of dashes every time the name of the condition is mentioned.

Mason says she made that decision because she wanted to allow the reader to focus more on the symptoms and the effects rather than a name. What the illness is called doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters, is that Martha does get the help and support she needs.

I appreciate that she didn’t want to stigmatise a particular condition. But the secrecy with which she surrounds Martha’s diagnosis has the opposite effect to the one she intended: it stigmatises mental health by giving the impression this condition is so bad that it is unmentionable, something to be hushed up, something to be embarrassed about. All of which runs counter to the trend now towards more open discussion about mental health.

Frustration

I also felt cheated, led to believe for a substantial part of the novel that there would be a reveal that would hep me understand what it was that had blighted Martha’s life. But that never happened.

Instead we got a strange disclaimer right at the end of the novel: “The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication, and doctors’ advice is wholly fictional.” That word “genuine” has been bothering me ever since I finished reading Sorrow and Bliss. it implies all the symptoms and experiences attached to Martha are not genuine. Fake in other words. And I haven’t been reading about someone with a mental illness at all. I’d have been more forgiving if she’d said the symptoms are not consistent with a specific mental illness.

It’s left me feeling very disgruntled.

For different reactions to Sorrow and Bliss take a look at these reviews:  

Clare at Years of Reading Selflishly

Kate at BooksAreMyFavouriteAndBest

Kim at ReadingMatters

 

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason : Footnotes

Meg Mason began her career at the Financial Times and The Times, since writing for a variety of newspapers and magazines including The Sydney Morning Herald , The New Yorker, Vogue and Marie Claire.

Her first book Say It Again in a Nice Voice, a memoir of early motherhood, was published in 2012. Her novel You Be Mother followed in 2017.

Sorrow and Bliss was published in 2021 by W&N  was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022 and longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Nominee for Ann Medlicott Acorn Prize in 2021.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

23 thoughts on “Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason — life blighted by mental health disorder

  • July 25, 2022 at 1:21 pm
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    Oh dear, sorry this was frustrating. The tone and the humour doesn’t sound like it works very well at all. And it’s weird that the author left her condition unnamed, especially when it sounds like the main character got a diagnosis?! Very strange call. I get what you mean about the author not wanting to stigmatise the illness, but it sounds irritating to read and doesn’t give enough clarity. Anyway, I’ve seen this around and wondered about it, but I think I’ll leave it.

    Reply
    • July 25, 2022 at 9:14 pm
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      The decision not to name the illness was one of the big talking points in our book club discussion. Fair to say that some people felt it was the right decision

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    • July 21, 2022 at 9:25 pm
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      There were some good one liners and I did enjoy the scene where the sister is giving birth and the only scissors they can find to cut the chord is a pinking scissors.

      Reply
  • July 21, 2022 at 12:53 am
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    This one is not on my wishlist but I enjoyed your review:)

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  • July 20, 2022 at 3:42 pm
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    Sorry to hear that you found this book somewhat frustrating, but it’s interesting to hear your concerns in some detail, especially on the secrecy surrounding Martha’s condition. A friend has been thinking of choosing this for our book group (although she’s currently leaning towards another potential option, so it’s yet to be decided). If she does go ahead with S&B, I’ll be interested to see how I find it. Some of our best group discussions arise from books that prompt a range of different perspectives, so in that respect it sounds ideal!

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    • July 20, 2022 at 4:39 pm
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      It was our book club choice Jacqui otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen to read it. We did have a good discussion, especially about the two issues I mention of the humour and the secrecy. To be fair, some people thought it was wonderful

      Reply
  • July 20, 2022 at 1:02 pm
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    I haven’t read this yet, though I have it on order from the library. But the reviews are so Marmite! I’m looking forward to seeing which way I jump.

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    • July 20, 2022 at 4:37 pm
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      That’s so true Margaret – the reactions are very mixed

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  • July 20, 2022 at 8:25 am
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    Excellent review and have to agree with your points – I don’t understand why Martha’s illness wasn’t named, the disclaimer was just odd and I feel by not naming it, it just added to stigma around mental health.
    I too got fed up half way through

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    • July 20, 2022 at 4:40 pm
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      So glad to hear that I am not alone in finding the disclaimer odd. One person in our book club said she felt it should also have come at the beginning of the book

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  • July 20, 2022 at 4:09 am
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    Thanks for the link. I liked this book a lot (although I did grow weary of the voice about midway through). The whole idea of not naming the condition is excellent. Why do we need labels for everything? The point the author is trying to make is that having a label doesn’t solve anything.The character still has to grapple with her issues. And, in any case, many people get misdiagnosed so labelling something isn’t an infallible system. And if they are labelled correctly there can be all kinds of stigmas attached or unhelpful assumptions made.

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    • July 25, 2022 at 9:22 pm
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      Not sure I buy into the author’s point that having a label doesn’t solve anything – when she gives her main character a diagnosis, isn’t that a label? True that it didn’t provide a solution – the diagnosis didn’t make her condition go away but it did put her on the correct course of medication.

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  • July 20, 2022 at 2:00 am
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    I read all three links reviews, each is so compelling, as is yours, I am intrigued! I find the concept of bl blanking out the name annoying as at well.

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    • July 20, 2022 at 4:41 pm
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      Do you think you’ll read this to decide for yourself?

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  • July 19, 2022 at 11:28 pm
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    I don’t think the disclaimer would validate this story at all. What is a “genuine mental disorder?”. Sounds like this book needed more editing. I wonder what the point of the book is. I know humour is important when dealing with adverse conditions but the timing needs to be right.

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  • July 19, 2022 at 10:18 pm
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    A very well-thought out review. Once again you make me take a second look at a story. Overall, I liked this and could relate to much of it due to my own family. The “humor” I liked were more one-liners about other stuff.

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    • July 20, 2022 at 4:44 pm
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      Glad you enjoyed it. It did have a lot to recommend it but the two problems I had spoiled the whole experience

      Reply

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