‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason (short-listed for 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction) is an addictive read. It is a funny, sad, shocking and insightful look at the rollercoaster impact of coping with serious mental health. This may sound daunting, but Mason’s bitter sweet writing make the book a joy to read.
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SORROW AND BLISS
BY MEG MASON
‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason (short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022) is an addictive read. It is a funny, sad, shocking and insightful look at the rollercoaster impact of coping with serious mental health. This may sound daunting, but Mason’s bitter sweet writing make the book a joy to read and has echoes of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Fleabag’ in its self-defamatory and self-sabotaging protagonist.
When we first meet Martha, she is angry at everything and everyone, but particularly her long-suffering husband Patrick, who after a 40th birthday he had lovingly arranged for her, walks out of their rented “executive home” in Oxford. We discover Patrick is a consultant specialist in intensive care whilst Martha works as a “funny” food columnist for Waitrose Magazine. Martha suffers moments, sometimes days and even weeks of all-consuming depression when she is physically unable to get herself out of bed and when Patrick leaves she has reached rock bottom. We then follow the arc of Martha’s life, with flashbacks to failed relationships, an unfulfilled career and childhood growing up with her younger sister Ingrid and their Bohemian parents Celia Barry and Fergus Russell. Fergus being an aspiring yet unsuccessful poet and Celia a moderately successful sculptor who drinks too much and hosts wild parties for like-minded artists in their tiny house in Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush.
Martha is quirky, intelligent and forthright, she is also annoying yet somehow likeable which is a credit to Mason’s writing. Martha has a particularly strong bond with her younger sister Ingrid who pointedly leads the family life she can’t have. Every year the family spend Christmas with their Aunt Winsome at her townhouse in Belgravia. It is here she first meets Patrick, who at thirteen is three years her junior. Patrick’s mother is dead and when his neglectful father in Hong Kong fails to book his son the plane home, Winsome’s son Oliver unexpectedly invites Patrick back to spend Christmas with everyone. This becomes an annual event. Patrick is quiet and tongue tied and instantly attracted to the outspoken and highly intelligent Martha. It is at this stage we wonder how their relationship developed from awkward childhood friends to marriage.
Interestingly Mason deliberately doesn’t name Martha’s mental illness. This is a clever and interesting choice for not only does it avoid labelling the illness and indeed Martha, it keeps the mystery of the story and reflects the uncertainty Martha feels for so much of her life not knowing what is wrong with her.
The story is painful and heartrending, but Mason writes with such directness, sharp dialogue and wit, that despite the subject matter the read is far from overwhelming. The inclusion of Martha’s family, particularly her sister Ingrid provide a lightness and laugh out loud moments as Ingrid struggles with the stress of bringing up four small children. Many of us have experienced that moment when Ingrid ecstatically calls her kids for tea with the words “My famous pasta-with-nothing-on-it.”.
Can Martha start over again? The ending is uncertain but hopeful – perhaps?