Book Review: Sorrow and Bliss – Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

About The Book

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.

My Review

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason is a gorgeous novel about family, love and mental illness. At the heart of the novel is Martha, a 40 year old woman who has suffered with mental illness since “a bomb went off” in her brain at aged 17. She is from a bohemian family; an artist mother whose sculptures made from reclaimed items absorb all of her time and a poet father who had a successful book many years earlier and has been trying, and failing to write a follow up ever since. Martha and her sister, Ingrid were often left to their own devices, especially when their parents went through one of their regular separations and their father, the one who ensured they were clothed and fed, left the family home.

Their only form stability comes from both their relationship, which is tight-knit and almost impenetrable, and their aunt and uncle, Winsome and Rowland. An affluent couple with three children, they host Christmas every year and ensure there is a big family meal and gifts, even whilst Martha’s mother shoots barbed comments at Winsome, her sister, and drinks herself into oblivion amongst the discarded wrapping paper.

It is at one of these Christmases when Martha’s cousin brings a friend home with him for Christmas. Patrick’s father lives in Singapore and he has been left at boarding school to fend for himself. Brought into the heart of this family, he meets Martha, admiring her from afar and falling in love with her.

What follows is a book which leaps from the past to the present, narrated by Martha. She shows us her and Ingrid’s childhoods and their adulthoods, interspersing witty asides from the present day. This is a book about depression, but it isn’t depressing. It is hard to read at times yes, but there is a lot of dark, wry humour, particularly between Martha and Ingrid who send each other text messages which basically comprise of gifs and emojis to convey how they feel. It felt odd to laugh at a book about mental illness, but I think what Mason did really well was show that life is made up of many dispirit parts, and humour, at the darkest times is often needed.

This is an observant character driven novel of great depth, providing a myriad of characters who come in and out of Martha’s life and leave an impression upon it. Some are wonderful, others less so, but at the centre of it all is Martha and her illness. This is never actually named, which I think was a brave but correct decision by Mason. It allows freedom to explore the wider issues of mental health and illness without pigeon holing the illness to one particular diagnosis. We are privy to the thoughts in Martha’s head and feel her desperation as her illness worsens.

Sorrow and Bliss really spoke to me, not because of mental illness per se, but because it addresses the issues surrounding having a long term illness. I have read very few books where illness is examined in such a true and thoughtful way. It shows, in realistic and heart-breaking prose how illness can cause the sufferer to be defined by that one thing and that one thing only. It shows that there is so much more to Martha than her illness, even when it is all-consuming. It shows the lack of agency over decisions made about her own body, how medication is given to her and choices are taken away. It examines beautifully the way she has to reimagine her future and the walls she puts around herself to protect herself from the pain.

This is an exquisitely beautiful book and is one of my books 2021. I gobbled it up and can’t stop thinking about it. It would make a marvellous book club book, with lots to talk about re: health, family and likeable and unlikeable characters and comes highly recommended from me.

Where You Can Read It

My thanks to Orion Publishing for supplying me with a copy of the book via Netgalley. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason is out now in hardcover, ebook and audiobook.

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