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Sorrow and Bliss: Brilliant rendering of a troubled woman

Meg Mason has written one of the best novels of the year so far

Sorrow and Bliss
Sorrow and Bliss
Author: Meg Mason
ISBN-13: 978-1474622974
Publisher: W&N
Guideline Price: £14.99

Sometimes the funniest people are the saddest. This is the driving force of Meg Mason’s stellar new novel. The title Sorrow and Bliss is entirely fitting for a book that skilfully charts the life of a woman living with mental illness, her days spent treading the fine line between humour and despair. It is that rarest of things, a book that a professional reviewer doesn’t want to end. Sharp, stylish and revelatory, this novel is sure to be one of the big success stories of the year.

The plot centres on Martha Friel, an Englishwoman approaching 40 whose marriage to her long-suffering husband, Patrick, has recently come to an end. What follows is a look back through Martha’s life from late teens onwards, a deep dive into a chaotic, troubled family whose love for each other ultimately cuts through the darkness.

The pacing is exemplary, the ups and downs of Martha’s life giving a natural flow to the narrative. An epigrammatic style also lends itself to graceful shifts in time: “One day, years later, my mother would tell me that no marriage makes sense to the outside world because, she would say, a marriage is its own world.”

That Celia, an alcoholic sculptor, is giving her daughter good advice comes as a surprise, following decades of erratic, neglectful treatment. Mason mines the situation for humour, from her mother’s “permanent sign on the door that said ‘GIRLS: before knocking, ask self – is something on fire?’ to her character description: “Now that she is essentially spherical, the impression is of many blankets thrown haphazardly over a birdcage.”


The wider family is another source of humour, from Martha’s perennially pregnant sister Ingrid to her fussy and loving aunt, to the arch wisdom of her poet father, or the deadpan exchanges between Martha and Patrick throughout. Their marriage is hugely original – genuinely romantic, desperately funny and sad: “ ‘Insanity,’ he said, ‘is not a deal-breaker. If it’s you.’ ”

Dialogue is a particular strength of Mason’s in a way that recalls the writing of Lorrie Moore, whereby dark humour is used to reveal character, to highlight absurdity and injustice, to get the reader close to the bones of a book:

Our sympathies lie at all times with Martha in this brilliant rendering of a troubled, confused woman who can behave atrociously to the people she loves

“Out loud, because I had nothing else to do, I analysed the particular pathos of hotel restaurants. I said maybe it was the lighting, or the fact they were always carpeted, the higher than usual concentration of people eating alone, maybe it was just the concept of an omelette station that made me question the meaning of everything.”

As well as Moore, Jenny Offill is another writer who comes to mind both stylistically and tonally. Other contemporary names include Nina Stibbe and Miriam Toews, certainly the latter’s acclaimed novel All My Puny Sorrows, which also has a sister relationship and mental illness to the forefront. In Sorrow and Bliss, the toll of mental illness on loved ones is captured not just through Patrick, but also Martha’s sister Ingrid, who has a fifth child to deal with in the form of her older sister.

Crucially, our sympathies lie at all times with Martha in this brilliant rendering of a troubled, confused woman who can behave atrociously to the people she loves – alternating between violent fits and long depressive periods – yet will go to lengths to help strangers in need. She spends her life trying to hide her considerable pain and suffering, like a patient with a terminal illness who believes herself infectious.

Mason makes an interesting technical choice in later parts of the book not to name the illness that a new doctor finally diagnoses. The redaction is frustrating for readers, but that is presumably the point: that we might feel even a fraction of what Martha feels at the misdiagnoses over the years, and the impossibility of fully relating her experiences to those around her.

The subject of motherhood, and by extension legacy, is another absorbing facet of Sorrow and Bliss. For much of the novel, Celia is a loathsome presence, but when Martha is at her lowest, there is only one person in the world who knows the right thing to say: “Martha, when you are in a room, nobody wants to talk to anybody else. Why is that, if not for the life you have lived, as someone who has been refined by fire?”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts