Sorrow and Bliss is the story of a woman called Martha. As described on the back of the book, ‘It is sad and funny’ and so much more.
The story is narrated in the aftermath of Martha’s separation from her husband, as she reflects on her life, trying to better understand it and herself. For Martha has always known there is something wrong with her, she just doesn’t know what it is. Martha is a vivacious and intelligent character and her narration is laced with acerbic wit that makes the story so endearing and very funny.
But at the heart of the novel is the crushing mental illness that Martha has lived with since childhood. At age 17, she has a complete breakdown and spends the summer in her father’s study. Even when Martha is well, her fear and anticipation of a recurrence is never far from mind and, more importantly, she lives with information a doctor told her at one of the many interventions during her teenage years: that falling pregnant while on the medication would not be safe for a developing baby. Because of this, from a young age, Martha has convinced herself that she doesn’t want children, despite her adoration and desire to have them.
Over the years, Martha tries to manage her condition through varying diagnoses and prescriptions, but ultimately believes she is just bad at being a person. Her eventual full and correct diagnosis brings clarity, understanding and anger. The fallout from this revelation is utterly absorbing, heartbreaking and sad, as Martha finally navigates her way to uncovering who she really is and admitting what is important to her.
I loved how the story is told through a series of linked vignettes on Martha’s life, from childhood, through to her early 40s. Each of these vignettes typically give a short description of what happened, laced with witty asides, and is then finished with a final crucial line to hint at the wider tragedy of that particular anecdote.
The story is set in London and Oxford (with a short time spent in Paris), giving it a quirky Notting Hill vibe.
There are so many great characters in this novel. Martha has been fortunate to grow up surrounded by people who care, support and love her, including her family (both immediate and extended) and a much-loved work colleague. She has a strong bond with her sister Ingrid, so strong that others describe it as a ‘force-field’. Their father, an aspiring poet, is dependable, strong and kind. Their mother is largely absent, devoting her time to creating sculptures out of repurposed materials in the garden shed and prone to throwing huge parties at their Goldhawk Road flat. (I loved that Martha grew up on Goldhawk Road. It’s the same road I lived on when I lived in London. But ‘Sorrow and Bliss’ isn’t the story of 12 expats living together in a three bedroom flat in Shepherd’s Bush. Back to Martha.) Her Aunt Winsome hosts Christmas every year in her central London home. One year, Martha’s cousin brings his friend, Patrick, home to celebrate Christmas with the family, after Patrick’s own family neglect to book him a flight home from boarding school. This begins a tradition whereby Patrick joins them for Christmas every year, becoming a welcome addition to the extended family.
What is really liberating about this story is that Martha’s illness is never named, even once she receives a diagnosis. In her writing, Mason simply refers to it as ‘— —’. Despite this being somewhat of a frustration for the reader who is well and truly invested in Martha by the time of her diagnosis, by refusing to label her condition, the author removes the medical prognosis and any preconceived notions of a particular condition. After all, the name itself is not important. What is important is Martha’s ability to finally understand and know herself, and to see herself for who she really is after decades of that being compromised by false information and advice from doctors, by loved ones who have turned the other way, and by her own fear of what besets her.
So much of Sorrow and Bliss is about Martha trying to reimagine her past and the person that she is, and to redeem the hurt and loss at its centre. It is tender, sad, heartbreaking and funny throughout, thanks to the author’s sharp writing and intelligent wit. It is a revealing look at family, relationships and navigating life with serious mental health challenges. Finally, it’s about finding yourself and starting again from nothing, if you can find something else to want.
Published in 2020 by HarperCollins Publishers; 341 pages.