Everyone tells Martha Friel she is clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer who has been loved every day of her adult life by one man, her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets.
So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – on the edge of 40 – friendless, practically jobless and so often sad? And why did Patrick decide to leave?
Maybe she is just too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most people. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain, at 17, and left her changed in a way that no doctor or therapist has ever been able to explain.
“Does a person need to be physically bleeding for you to comprehend they’re not well?”
I had avoided Meg Mason’s novel, even though it appeared on the Women’s Prize Longlist and Shortlist, because it was recommended to by in Waterstones, on two separate occasions in different stores as being ‘like Fleabag‘. And however much I enjoyed Fleabag – and I genuinely love that show and Phoebe Waller-Bridge generally, including her role in the Star Wars franchise which is the best droid ever! – that comparison put me off. If I want Fleabag, I would watch Fleabag, not read a book that is a bit like it…
Fortunately, I did persevere because it made the Women’s Prize shortlist and I pressed on – and it is not “like Fleabag“: Martha Friel’s voice was no imitation but distinctive, original and felt terribly authentic. It was an acerbic voice, wry and sharp and hilarious in places, deeply exuding pathos in others.
The novel opens with Martha and her husband Patrick in a series of vignettes: at a party soon after their own wedding, and in the aftermath of Martha’s fortieth birthday party where she pointed out that Patrick’s way of miming the question Do you want a drink?
‘… makes me want to shoot you with an actual gun.’ My voice was dry and mean and I hated it – and Patrick when he said, ‘Great, thanks’ with no emotion at all.
‘I don’t mean in the face. More like a warning shot in the knee or somewhere that you could still go to work.’
Although there are elements of stream of consciousness as Martha’s narration meanders through time, Mason then recounts in a more-or-less chronological way Martha’s life from her childhood with artistic but unsuccessful parents: her mother, Celia was a “minorly important” sculptor and an alcoholic; father, Fergus was a poet once described as a “male Sylvia Plath”. We also meet the extended family: Ingrid, Martha’s sister; Winsome, Celia’s sister and her husband Rowland and their children. It is at a Christmas with Winsome and Rowland that Martha met Patrick, whom she is destined to marry, at the age of sixteen. At seventeen, an unidentified – a consciously unidentified – mental illness struck Martha to the extent that
ON THE MORNING of my French A level, I woke up with no feeling in my hands and arms. I was lying on my back and there were already tears leaking from the corners of my eyes, running down my temples into my hair. I got up and went to the bathroom, and saw in the mirror that I had a deep purple circle, like a bruise, around my mouth. I could not stop shaking.
In the exam, I couldn’t read the paper and sat staring at the first page until it was over, writing nothing. As soon as I got home, I went upstairs and got into the space under my desk and sat still like a small animal that instinctively knows it’s dying.
As the novel progresses, we follow Martha’s life and relationships, her first failed marriage to Jonathan, her time in Paris, her attempts to secure a variety of jobs, and her return to Patrick and marriage to him. And around this, we witness the devastating impact that her mental health has and her attempts to manage it.
The management and medical elements in the novel were, again, disturbingly familiar and authentic: Martha describes how she
collected diagnoses like I was trying for the whole set. Pills became pill combinations, devised by specialists. They talked about tweaking and adjusting dials; the phrase ‘trial and error’ was very popular.
And how her medications either made her worse, in which case she stopped, or made her feel better, in which case she stopped.
But, unlike Careless where the theme and message dominated the characterisation to the point where it felt preachy, Meg Mason seemed always to priortise the character: her somewhat Kafkaesque experience of the medical profession’s ineptitude in the field of mental health and the failings of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders contributed to Martha and to her story. Mason does not identify the mental health condition that Martha is finally diagnosed with by a more enlightened psychiatrist, referring to it only with a — which I did find a little irritating, but its specific label is irrelevant and would be limiting. It was a condition that wrapped up with social stigma and a shock value, but then so many mental health conditions are.
Love was at the heart of the novel, which makes it sound a little twee. But it isn’t. It does not – thank god! – offer up the love of a good man as the panacea for mental health issues. It does not show that love is easy or without complication or easy or even enough, necessarily. But the love between the sisters, Ingrid and Martha was palpable and real; the love between Martha and her mother was strained but ultimately powerful despite their shared difficulties. It was a love that did have limits, and which did not prevent her family from calling Martha out on her behaviour when it was out of order, which it often was to be fair.
There was also the strong maternal love between Ingrid and her children – despite the fact that she laments having “three under fucking five” and the work and exhaustion that came with it. And Martha’s capacity for maternal love was the most beautiful and most poignant and painful part of the novel: after a hilarious, visceral impromptu birthing of Ingrid’s first child in Winsome’s bathroom with quantities of blood soaked up by “Winsome’s good towels”, Martha
let myself be obliterated by the intensity of my love for this almost weightless thing.
In terms of language, Mason is wonderful at this – a sort of wonderfully poignant undercutting of a paragraph or a scene by a single sentence. Exploring how much her husband, Patrick, annoys her with his holey jumpers, misplaced collars, untucked shirts and unkempt hair, she undercuts it beautifully with
“He has the most beautiful hands I have ever seen.”
This is a novel that I know will remain with me, and its characters will haunt me into the future. I whole heartedly support the Women’s Prize judges for advancing it into the shortlist. With only 2 weeks before the winners are announced, I have to say that I would be championing this one of those that I have read so far. I adored The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak, but feel that the keenness and wit of the narrative voice here, the exquisite blend of genuine humour and pathos, puts this en route to the winner’s podium!
What I Liked
- The acerbic, droll and witty narrative voice of Martha.
- The exquisite and delicate balance of pathos and humour, optimism and darkness.
- The powerful sense of family and the strength it offers, along with the frustrations and conflicts.
- A potent and authentic depiction of the crushing effect of mental health.
What Could Have Been Different
- The use of the “–” to ‘name’ Martha’s condition – it just felt out of place.