The Shock of the Fall. Nathan Filer. 2014. 320pp. ISBN: 978-0007491452
Review by Simon McCarthy-Jones
We bury our dead six feet down, but their memory lies in a shallower grave.
Memories inflated with guilt rise irresistibly. They bob against the surface of our mind. They will not be pushed down. They must be let go.
This is what Matthew Homes, the protagonist of this magnificent, award winning debut novel by Nathan Filer, is trying to do by telling his story. As Matthew puts it:
“this story [is]… finding a way to let go.”
It is not, however, a book that you will want to let go.
It vividly shows how guilt in the wake of a trauma can have a devastating psychological impact. By doing this, it destigmatises schizophrenia by showing how its experiences can make sense in the context of the persons’ life. It critiques the mental health system by showing it to us from a patient’s perspective. It meditates on the nature of memory. And it does all this, and more, with craft and beauty. It is a superb achievement.
This review and analysis is my reading of the book. Naturally, this a product of my own background and interests. I’m sure you will find much more.
What is the book about?
The fall in the book’s title most clearly refers to the literal fall that kills Simon Homes, an 8 year-old boy with Down’s Syndrome.
As the book develops we find out how his younger brother, Matthew, who was 6 years-old at the time, lives with profound feelings of guilt surrounding his involvement in Simon’s fall.
This guilt births experiences such as hearing Simon’s voice, which result in Matthew receiving a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
The impact of the fall on the boys’ mother is also explored. Here grief leads to an overwhelming fear of also losing Matthew, which results in anxiety and over-protectiveness. Matthew has to deal with this too.
The voice of Matthew the adult is interspersed with the voice of Matthew the child, describing past events contemporaneously. The technique, which hence oscillates between reflection and reliving (much like the consciousness of a person with post-traumatic stress disorder, more about which later) works incredibly well.
Even though Simon dies early in the book, the author is nevertheless able to generate ample drama and tension to make this book a page-turner. He does this done by carefully building up to reveal exactly what happened between Simon and Matthew, dropping clues along the way, and only revealing the full details three chapters from the end of the book.
To say that I liked the novel simply because I am interested in schizophrenia and ‘hearing voices‘, or because I appreciated the many accurate details of life on a psychiatric ward that the author (himself a mental health nurse) weaves into the text, is to do a disservice to the novel, which I liked for many, many reasons.
What did I like about the book?
The author writes exceedingly well.
There are wonderfully evocative turns of phrase:
- “The room smells of broken sleep and marijuana”.
- “Spring sunshine painted pillars of white across my carpet”.
There are beautiful lyric passages, born of contrasts:
“Simon had hypotonia. He also had microgenia, macroglossia, epicanthic folds, an atrial septal defect, and a beautiful smiling face that looked like the moon. I hate this fucking place.”
There are numerous observations which I felt captured the real:
- “Mum gave me a weak smile that didn’t reach her eyes”.
- “angry, with no idea where the anger belongs”.
- “the kind of boy who drew knobs on his own pencil case”.
“I smoked another cigarette by the big yellow bins, and watched one of my neighbours kick his dog”.
And dark humour litters the book:
Dead people still have birthdays
The novel uses the classic horror trope of a protagonist bringing a loved one back from dead, only to find that what comes back is something much darker. Think Pet Sematary, for example.
Matthew’s guilt is electric. It reanimates his brother.
Filer turbocharges Matthew’s guilt in a number of ways, to give it sufficient power to do this.
First, before Simon falls, Matthew himself falls. Simon carries him home:
“Simon carried me all the way back to the caravan, all by himself, without any help from anyone, even though it half killed him, but he did it anyway, he did it for me, because he loved me.”
When Simon falls later, Matthew is not able to reciprocate, magnifying his guilt.
“It’s dark, night-time, there is mud in my mouth, in my eyes, and the rain keeps falling. I am trying to carry him, but the ground is wet. I lift him and fall, lift him and fall, and he is silent.”
Second, Simon is represented as the archetype of the Innocent. He could be read as being a Christ-like figure (indeed, recall that it was Simon of Cyrene who acted as a proxy for Christ by carrying his cross). This functions to makes Matthew’s role in his death all the more heinous.
More generally, a book whose title refers to ‘the fall’ and whose two main characters have the names of apostles, automatically encourages us to look for a Judeo-Christian symbolism. For more on this, see my postscript to this review.
Matthew wants his brother back. Filer has an exceptionally powerful chapter where Matthew makes a pseudo-alchemical attempt to reconstruct Simon. But more often his wish is for Simon to simply talk to him. After the accident Matthew begs of the dead Simon:
“Talk to me… Please. Say something… Please. Talk to me…Please. Please. Talk to me.”
Simon appears to hear this call (note that the name Simon is derived from the Hebrew name Shim’on, meaning “he has heard”) and Matthew gets his wish, multimodally. Simon comes back visually, aurally, and as a hidden presence.
And what comes back is not merely an abstract ‘voice’, as mental health services refer to it as. To Matthew it is Simon. This is an important distinction for him:
‘I don’t hear voices, okay? It’s my brother, for fuck’s sake! How many times do I need to tell you people this?’
However, Simon comes back not as an innocent, but as something darker. He is a golem of guilt. ‘Simon’ tries to tempt Matthew into suicide, asking him to “Come and play” (i.e., to kill himself to be with Simon in the afterlife). This makes his doctors want to eliminate this risky voice. Filer then shows us the brutal logic of this. Matthew is being asked to kill Simon a second time, in the name of ‘treatment’:
“This is my care plan: As a small boy I killed my own brother, and now I must kill him again. I’m given medicine to poison him, then questioned to make sure he’s dead.”
The plot device of a hallucinated voice of a recognized individual suggesting suicide in the wake of a trauma has a basis in reality.
Or take the case of Mary. She was a couple of blocks away from her adult son when she heard the gunshots that killed him.
Now, once a week, she both sees and hears him.
‘I don’t know why they shot me, Mama,’ he says. ‘Come home [to heaven] with me.’
Next I will turn to some of the key topics of the book; guilt, memory, and schizophrenia
Guilt and its manifestations
The potential effects of guilt on a person is the central theme of the novel for me. Initially, Matthew’s role in Simon’s fall is known but not acknowledged:
“something terrible was asleep in the corner of the room and nobody dared be the one to wake it.”
The guilt then starts to slowly advance on Matthew, at first lacking form:
“And there was something else, something else, hidden in a cloud of smoke.”
Filer then expertly shows all the ways Matthew’s perceived guilt manifests in his life.
“He had a big round face, which was forever smiling and made me think of the moon”
Simon’s death is not like the destruction of the moon, but rather the failure of the sun’s rays to manifest it any longer.
He has gone dark, but is still present. As a result, he continues to generate powerful tidal effects, creating waves of perceived guilt in Matthew.
I refer to Matthew’s guilt as ‘perceived’ guilt, because he was only a young child when the fall took place. He cannot truly be said to be guilty. Which raises the question as to where his guilt comes from. In part, his father contributes to this, in a conversation with his mother, which Matthew overhears:
‘I’m ashamed of my own son… And not for the first time… don’t pretend that you weren’t too.’
Filer appears to suggest that because Matthew does not express his perceived guilt, it manifests in experiences associated with schizophrenia. His healing can only really begin when he expresses this emotion:
“The crying came from nowhere. That’s how it felt. But that’s just a way of saying it was sudden. That it caught me by surprise. It didn’t really come from nowhere. Nothing comes from nowhere. It had been inside me for years. I’d never let it out, not really. The truth is I didn’t know how. Nobody teaches you that sort of thing.”
“It didn’t come from nowhere, but it did sort of take me by surprise. The tears falling faster than I could wipe them away. ‘I’m so sorry, Simon. I’m so sorry. Forgive me. Please can you forgive me”.
As should be clear, Matthew’s core problem is not one that medication he is given can address.
Drugs can’t forgive.
The book also offers an exploration of memory; its fallibility, its failings, and its indeterminacy.
“I don’t know why it was this day I decided to follow him. Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it was another day.”
What happened? Can we ever know? As Filer has Matthew put it “Truth changes.”
Filer also makes insightful points about the involuntariness of what and when we remember:
“think back through your own life, to when you were eight or nine years old. See if the memories you have are the ones you might expect. Or if they are fragments, dislocated moments, a smell here, a feeling there. The unlikeliest conversations and places. We don’t choose what we keep – not at that age. Not ever, really.”
Filer portrays memory as being anchored in certain events, which the mind then riffs around:
“These are the moments that make the dot-to-dot pictures of our past; everything else is simply filling in the gaps.”
His writing on this topic reminded me of Harold Pinter’s work, which also explores the “mistiness” of the past.
For example, consider this reflection by Pinter:
“[There is] the immense difficulty, if not impossibility, of verifying the past. I don’t mean merely years ago, but yesterday, this morning. What took place, what was the nature of what took place, what happened? If one can speak of the difficulty of knowing what in fact took place yesterday one can I think treat the present in the same way. What’s happening now? We won’t know until tomorrow or six month’s time, and we won’t know then, we’ll have forgotten or our imagination will have attributed quite false characteristics to today. A moment is sucked away and distorted, often even at the same time of its birth.”
This captures Matthew’s struggle. Matthew is not only unsure about what has happened, but also about what is happening now:
“I can’t separate the real from the imagined, or even be sure there is a difference”
“It’s like we each have a wall that separates our dreams from reality, but mine has cracks in it. The dreams can wriggle and squeeze their way through, until it’s hard to know the difference.”
All this makes Matthews past and present like a dream.
Or a nightmare.
Filer accurately portrays a range of experiences associated with schizophrenia.
- A loss of agency (“More and more these days I only knew what I was going to do as I actually did it.”).
- The experience of everything being connected (“I was distracted by the connections, I’d find them everywhere, because we’re all made of the same stuff, the same interstellar dust”)
- Other people thinking the voices aren’t real (“I wonder if you believe me? People don’t tend to believe me.”)
- And the questioning. The endless questioning…
“This voice – his voice – do you hear it inside your head, or does it seem to come from the outside, and what exactly does it say, and does it tell you to do things or just comment on what you’re doing already, and have you done any of the things it says, which things, you said your mum takes tablets, what are they for, is anyone else in your family FUCKING MAD, and do you use illicit drugs, how much alcohol do you drink, every week, every day, and how are you feeling in yourself right now, on a scale of 1– 10”
The chapter “* I don’t hear voices” features a truly lyrical description of Matthew’s experiences of perceiving his brother still in the world:
“In my room, at night, if I stayed awake, filling the sink with cold water to splash my face, if the tap choked and spluttered before the water came, he was saying, I’m lonely. When I opened a bottle of Dr Pepper and the caramel bubbles fizzed over the rim, he was asking me to come and play. He could speak through an itch, the certainty of a sneeze, the after-taste of tablets, or the way sugar fell from a spoon. He was everywhere, and in everything.”
We also see this experience described in other parts of the book, also in achingly beautiful prose:
“In time, Simon grew more distant. I looked in the rain clouds, fallen leaves, sideways glances. I searched for him in the places I had come to expect him. In running tap water. In spilled salt. I listened in the spaces between words.”
Matthew is given a diagnosis of schizophrenia, but he could have also been given a co-morbid diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (which is not uncommon), stemming from the trauma of Simon’s death. Indeed, we see Matthew experience the characteristic PTSD symptom of involuntarily re-experiencing memories:
“Some memories refuse to be locked in time or place, they are always present”.
One review I saw of this book claimed that it was confusing as to whether Matthew’s problems are caused by guilt or schizophrenia. For me, this doesn’t just miss the author’s point, but drives past it at 90 in the opposite direction.
Similarly, in Matthew’s case, there is no ‘schizophrenia’ causing his experiences.
There is only a complex manifestation of guilt and grief and loss and shame.
The novel implicitly suggests that referring to his experiences as ‘schizophrenia’, with all its attendant associations and consequences, muddies rather than clears the waters.
In this sense, Filer is making quite a radical claim, namely that (some) people’s experiences of schizophrenia may actually be manifestations of overwhelming emotions such as guilt and shame.
This idea has been promulgated by a number of researchers (myself included) as well as people with lived experience of a schizophrenia diagnosis. Indeed, a recent (and excellent) book entitled ‘Living with Voices’, which puts forward this idea, is mentioned as being owned by Matthew.
This novel brings this hypothesis to life. It takes the fearful concept of schizophrenia and humanises it by making it understandable.
Reading this book is an aesthetically and emotionally powerful experience. It has what all great art should; truth and beauty.
I would unhesitatingly and exuberantly recommend it to anyone.
Should you still be wavering over purchasing this book though (ye of little faith), you can read a free kindle sample first.
Judeo-Christian symbolism in The Shock of the Fall
It is possible that shock of the fall, referred to in the title of this book, could also refer to the trauma resulting from The Fall.
Just as humanity is cut off from God after The Fall, Matthew finds himself cut off from the love of his parents after Simon’s fall.
In one scene shortly after Simon’s death, Matthew looks for love from his parents, but they:
“didn’t turn around. I never felt the reassuring squeeze of a hand on my leg, they never said it would be okay. Nobody whispered, Shhh, shhh. I knew then – I was totally alone. It was a strange thing to find out that way.”
Matthew also stresses throughout the book that the atoms that make up his being are constantly changing, and hence he is in some sense continually being reborn. However, despite this, his guilt (akin to original sin?) remains, having been transmitted across the generations of Matthew.
There are actually numerous falls in this book, For example, Matthew falls into a young girl who is burying a doll. As a result of this, she tells him “‘You’re not welcome here any more, Matthew.’ Is it possible that this is also specific reference to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden?
Another interesting parallel between this novel and the Bible is how what happens after the death of Simon mirrors what happens after the death of Christ, as reported in the gospel of Matthew (27:50-51):
“Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent”
Compare this with the events of this novel which see Simon die and yield up a ghost, causing Matthew to be rent in two (at least according to the literal meaning of schizophrenia; ‘split mind’).
A further potential biblical allusion stems from the death of Simon, albeit accidentally, at the hands of his brother.
This echoes the murder of Abel by Cain. Recall Genesis 4:8-10:
“And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.”
There are a lot of parallels between this passage and Filer’s novel.
- Matthew is effectively responsible for Simon’s death in a field-like environment.
- Matthew’s mother asks him “Where’s Simon?”
- Matthew volunteers as his brother’s keeper (when Simon asks his parents what will happen to him if they die, Matthew runs into the room declaring “I’ll look after you Simon. I’ll always look after you.’).
- The voice of Simon literally does cry out to Matthew from beyond the grave.
So, does Matthew have something paralleling the fabled ‘mark of Cain’? This is hard to establish as the Bible is not clear about what this sign was.
However, one idea that has seeped into our culture is that the mark was a physical sign on Cain’s forehead. This idea seems to have originally come from the medieval Torah commentator Shlomo Yitzchaki (better known as Rashi) who suggests that the mark was one of the Hebrew letters of the name of God (YHWH) engraved onto Cain’s forehead
This might account for something that was puzzling me; the amount of kissing on the forehead that happens in the book.
- Nanny kisses Matthew on the forehead on two separate occasions (p.109, p.299).
- His mother kisses him on the forehead on two separate occasions (p.25, p. 42).
- His mother thinks he has a fever because she places her hand against his forehead (“Oh, darling. You feel hot. You’re burning up.”, p.26).
- Annabelle kisses her doll on the forehead (p.3) and later Matthew thinks he can actually feel this kiss (p.3).
Are these references to Matthew bearing the mark of Cain? Are acts of love trying to absolve him of his mark and sin?
Ok, they probably aren’t. Other parts of this parallel don’t fit. For example, Cain was the firstborn, but Matthew wasn’t.
There is the painting of Simon’s and Matthew’s faces as tigers at the zoo, and the awarding of a Tony the Tiger badge to Matthew for swimming.
Could this be meant to make us think of William Blake’s poem The Tyger?
This may seem like a leap, but recall the line of this poem that runs:
“What the hand dare seize the fire?
There is a notable parallel with this when Matthew senses Simon’s presence in the flames of his birthday cake candles, and tries to hold him:
“He was in the flames. Of course he was in the flames. A nurse grabbed hold of my wrist, leading me quickly to the clinic where she held my blistering fingers under the cold tap. I had no idea what I’d done, only that I had been trying to hold him.”
So, why would Filer allude to this, if indeed he is. This could be due to Blake’s line “Did he who made the Lamb make thee? “. It could suggest that Matthew is struggling to believe that the same creator made both him and Simon.
In summary, whilst it appears likely that there is something going on beneath the surface of the book involving Judeo-Christian symbolism, I cannot grasp exactly what it is.
I will have to leave it to someone more qualified than I to enlighten me on this matter.
If you do have a good explanation, please let me know in the comments section of this blog!