‘I was sorry and wanted to apologise for becoming a factor in his afternoon, for complicating his walk and demanding to be thought about.’
This novel is about a woman called Martha. She knows there is something wrong with her but she doesn’t know what it is. Her husband Patrick thinks she is fine. He says everyone has something, the thing is just to keep going.
Martha told Patrick before they got married that she didn’t want to have children. He said he didn’t mind either way because he has loved her since he was fourteen and making her happy is all that matters, although he does not seem able to do it.
By the time Martha finds out what is wrong, it doesn’t really matter anymore. It is too late to get the only thing she has ever wanted. Or maybe it will turn out that you can stop loving someone and start again from nothing – if you can find something else to want.
The main character Martha is suffering with mental health problems from a young age to the extent that you sometimes wonder, can the feeling of sadness get any worse, and that one step further to a worse feeling of not wanting to do anything would be the wish to disappear completely from social life and die?
It took me a few days to digest the story and let a few thoughts sink in and mature. First of all, this book is very well written, compelling and the characters relatable and, even if not always likable, it was moving to read about each of their search for purpose and meaning in the world.
What also makes this book such a good read is the witty thoughts and dialogues which made me stop and think and the way sorrow and bliss always live side by side, that desperation and failure does not mean there is nothing positive to hold on to or learn from.
Family and sibling love and care are two big themes that counterbalance the messiness of the characters’ lives and help all them to carry on as best as they can. Martha stands out in that she struggles the most and seeks medical help at different stages of her life, doing her best to find and keep a job while always standing at the fragile tipping point between coping and breaking down. However, at some point the coping stops and the story takes an important turn.
‘…in between I felt an unnatural serenity that I had not experienced before. It was, I decided, the serenity of a cancer patient who is been fighting for so long, they are relieved by the discovery it is terminal, because they can stop now and just do what they like until the end.’
What is original about this book is that what exactly Martha is suffering from in terms of a specific mental illness with a diagnosis and treatment is not the main topic nor are any specifics mentioned. The fact that her illness is not given a recognized label in the book does not mean it isn’t an essential part of her life though. Ultimately finding a diagnosis that helps does matter because finding a way to connect with people and a sense of purpose matters too.
Overall, there is so much wisdom to be found in this book that explores the effects of depression, purposelessness, heart ache, confusion and the difficulties to fit in or find belonging and purpose which for me led to the message that life is messy and difficult, but if you’re lucky there’s love that can keep you afloat, there’s a doctor who does manage to put the puzzle pieces together and gives you the answer for all that feeling of sorrow and pain.
‘Normal people say, I can’t imagine feeling so bad I’d genuinely want to die. I do not try to explain that it isn’t that you want to die. It is that you know you are not supposed to be alive, feeling a tiredness that powders your bones, a tiredness with so much fear. The unnatural fact of living is something you must eventually fix.’
There was much to think about after reading Mason’s book and the fact that Martha’s illness does not exist heightens the idea that each person is also unique in how they experience symptoms, whether they can be grouped under a specific umbrella or not.
Maybe the book is tied up a bit too neatly at the end but I admit that after the messy and huge ups and downs the main character goes through it also feels like a catharsis on the reader’s side. There is a sense of relief and hope that carries a message to all mental health sufferers to never give up seeking help for as long as it takes to find an answer.
The Book in three words: original, tragicomic and moving
I’d love to know your thoughts on the book if you’ve read it!
About the author
Meg Mason began her career at the Financial Times and The Times of London. Her work has since appeared in The Sunday Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sunday Telegraph. She has written humour for The New Yorker and Sunday STYLE, was a GQ columnist for five years and a regular contributor to Vogue, marie claire, and ELLE.
Her first book Say It Again in a Nice Voice (HarperCollins), a memoir of early motherhood, was published in 2012. Her novel You Be Mother (HarperCollins) followed in 2017. She lives in Sydney.