Martha Friel, the protagonist of Meg Mason’s widely praised novel Sorrow and Bliss, is in the middle of a crisis: her marriage is imploding. Things have gotten so bad that, on their way home from the last party they attend as husband and wife, she says to him “When you do that pointing thing it makes me want to shoot you with an actual gun.” Patrick’s response? “How about we don’t talk until we get home.”
Things weren’t always so vitriolic between the pair. Once upon a time, they were each other’s most favourite person and Martha felt as though “we had been melted down and made into another thing. […] It was the happiest I have ever felt.”
Happiness, as it turns out, is a rare commodity for Martha. She and her younger sister, Ingrid, comes from a relatively dysfunctional family. Her father, Fergus Russell, is a failed poet; her mother, Celia Barry, a sculptor. Fergus and Celia still live in the family home in Shepherd’s Bush (a district in West London), but they can only afford their lives because of Celia’s sister, Winsome, who at first seems like a rich snob, but in the end turns out to be the rock in the lives of these fragile, broken people. Patrick was childhood friends with Winsome’s son, Oliver, and Martha has known him since she was sixteen.
It is around the same time that Martha meets Patrick that she wakes up with “no feeling in [her] hands and arms.” It is the beginning of a long period of ill (mental) health for Martha. No one seems able to diagnose the problem, and her family reacts with varying degrees of sympathy. Her mother “no longer came into [her] room, except one with the vacuum cleaner. She pretended not to notice [her], but made a point of vacuuming around [her] feet.” Her father “stayed up with [her] in the night, sitting on the floor, leaning against [her] bed.” Ingrid tells her “You’ve basically turned into Mum.”
Sorrow and Bliss traces Martha’s journey through this unnamed mental illness (Mason uses dashes — instead of naming it, and a nurse in my book club said it sounded like schizophrenia), but Mason herself says that the book is not really about mental illness. In an article in The Guardian, Mason said “It’s not the schizophrenia book, the bipolar book, the borderline personality book, it’s a book about what it feels like to have X or to look after someone with X and what it does to the extended family and the marriage.”
By the time the book begins, Martha has been – with varying degrees of success -managing her mental health issues, the myriad dysfunctions of her family, her own stalled career aspirations and for the last eight years, her marriage to Patrick, whom one woman tells her she should feel so lucky to be “married to a man like that.” The truth of the matter is that life and relationships are complicated and Martha’s life sometimes spins itself into a deep, dark hole from which there is often no escape. Strangely, it is a tattoo artist who puts things into perspective for Martha
Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change. Usually on their own. As soon as you think that’s it, it’s going to be like this forever, they change again.
I loved this book. I loved Martha’s family, particularly Winsome. I loved Martha’s relationship with Ingrid – which was often laugh-out-loud funny. I loved Patrick, who somehow didn’t come across as a martyr even though he was self-sacrificing. And I loved Martha, in all her messy glory.
This book is a winner and I highly recommend it.