When the reader is first introduced to Martha, the acerbic, straight-talking narrator of Sorrow and Bliss, she is thinking about a wedding held “shortly after” her own, where she answered a woman’s question about how she met her husband by saying, “Patrick’s sort of like the sofa that was in your house growing up”; a thing that was always there, so much so that no one ever “give[s] it any conscious thought”.
This became their “stock answer” to this kind of question, Martha says, for the entirety of the eight years that she and Patrick were married.
This kind of narration is typical of Martha, who patterns many of her anecdotes this way: a short description of what happened, laced with witty asides, is then brought home with a devastating line to hint at the wider tragedy of what this actually means. The sofa story is funny, and full of character and charm – and then the reader is told this marriage has not lasted. A description of a gif that reminds Martha of Patrick is absurd and beautifully cute – until Martha reveals she has watched it “5,000 times” since the day she moved back in with her parents. Or the inverse happens: a list of some of Patrick’s small, annoying flaws is finished with the line, “He has the most beautiful hands I have ever seen.”
Sorrow and Bliss – Meg Mason’s debut novel – is narrated in the aftermath of Martha and Patrick’s separation, when Martha is thinking back over her life and trying to understand it, and herself. Patrick has indeed been in Martha’s life for as long as an old sofa – first coming to her family’s Christmas lunch when he was 13, accompanying a cousin from the boarding school they both attended because Patrick’s absent father has forgotten to book him a flight home.
From this beginning, he very much becomes a part of Martha’s extended family, taken under the wing of her wealthy and exacting aunt Winsome, who hosts these Christmas lunches each year in her central London home. Patrick is sweet-natured, self-effacing, shy and very much drawn in by Martha’s self-possession and fierce intelligence.
By what’s really at the heart of the novel is the illness that has been with Martha since her childhood: a cyclical, crushing depression that has left her, at times, unable to do anything but lie in small, dark spaces (“like a small animal that instinctively knows it’s dying”) for weeks or months at a time. Even when Martha is well, she fears the recurrence of her illness; and, more importantly, she lives with something a doctor told her in her teenage years: that falling pregnant while on her medication would not be safe for a developing baby. Because of this, Martha tells all of her lovers – including Patrick – that she doesn’t want children, even convincing herself that this is true, despite her adoration for them.
Mason never names Martha’s illness, and even chooses, once Martha receives a diagnosis, to refer to it simply as ‘— —’. There’s something wonderfully liberating about this, for the way in which it avoids the medicalisation that Martha has suffered her entire life, while still allowing her the clarity and understanding (and anger) that the diagnosis brings her. The name itself is not important, Mason is arguing; what’s important is that Martha’s ability to know herself, and see herself for who she really is, has been 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. Martha is vivacious and clever (“brilliant”, as her father’s estimation has it), and the fact of her charisma, as well as the way in which her dialogue and narration alike are peppered with droll asides, means that even the darkest of the material in Sorrow and Bliss is handled lightly – and it is all the more devastating for this.
It is an incredibly funny novel, and one that’s enlivened, often, by a madcap energy. Yet it still manages to be sensitive and heartfelt, and to offer a nuanced portrayal of what it means to try to make amends and change, even when that involves “start[ing] again from nothing.”
• Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason is out now through Harper Collins