The story in Sorrow and Bliss is told by Martha, funny, brilliant, mixed-up and troubled. At 40 she has no job, lives in a house she hates and her husband Patrick has left her. We learn she has experienced mental health problems since her late teens – ricocheting from happiness to despair with symptoms that also have physical manifestations making it difficult for her to function.
Her family are also somewhat dysfunctional, a loving father who has spent his lifetime trying to write poetry and suffering abuse from Martha’s mother, a sculptor who drinks heavily, wraps herself up in her work and prefers to be left alone by her family, and Martha’s beloved sister Ingrid who adores her, but who is consumed by the demands of her own growing family.
Inside Martha’s head is not an easy place to be but what makes it bearable is the humour that shoots through every line. Even in the middle of describing a deeply upsetting experience Martha will probably manage to make you laugh, and this book does that brilliant thing of putting into words things you know but have never seen written down before.
I found the degree to which I rooted for Martha almost unbearable and when she eventually receives a diagnosis for her condition and the right form of treatment I couldn’t stop reading to find out if things were going to be ok. Intriguingly in the book you never actually find out what the diagnosis is and a note at the end clarifies that the symptoms Martha suffers are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. I thought this was really interesting – it leads you to reflect on mental health more generally and how misunderstood and misdiagnosed it can be with anti-depressants seemingly the default option. And as the book shows so gracefully the lives ruined are not just the sufferers but their family and friends. The bookclubber in me might also flag it up as a source of potential exasperation. The other thought that occurred to me was that having read so many 'auto fiction' novels – novels that draw heavily on the author's real life experiences – I actually thought it was really refreshing to read a novel with a statement at the end that basically said 'this is fiction, I made it up'. And I liked it for that.
A brilliant, thoughtful, moving read that will stay with you long after finishing and with lots of talking points for discussion. Believe what everyone says, this book is great.
Further reading: I haven't actually read it yet, but I just picked up The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath in the charity shop the other day which feels, from what I know of it, like it might be a good follow on – possibly the sorrow without any of the bliss, I will report back. I also wondered about The Vegetarian by Han Kang, a haunting Korean novel which won the Booker international a couple of years back. We did it for my book club and covered it on the podcast, episode 2. I loved it, and ended up reading it a couple of times. It's about a woman who decides to take a stand and stop eating meat, but, as becomes clear, this act of self-determination places her far outside of what society, and her husband, expects of her. It's beautiful and strange as she descends into a kind of madness. I also thought of the non-fiction memoir Born to be Mild by Rob Temple, which relates a year spent focusing on small everyday challenges in order to try to overcome his issues with anxiety. It's hilarious, but also sweet and moving, I really enjoyed it.