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.
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.
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
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.