Meg Mason’s novel is like a secret diary tackling motherhood, marriage and mental health. It is by turns dark and hilarious
I knew after the first six pages that Sorrow and Bliss was different to anything I’d ever read before. It’s women’s fiction, but not as you know it. Meg Mason’s third novel is a fearless leap into the realities of modern marriage, motherhood and mental health; a book that resonates and challenges in equal measure.
This is the messy truth of life, by turns dark and hilarious. It’s not without its faults, and the characters are frequently unlikeable. Yet that’s part of its appeal.
This book breaks all the rules, mixing subtle social commentary with flashes of Wildean wit, and reads like finding a secret diary. It looks under rocks, revealing secret yearnings and stripping bare the stigmas we’d rather not acknowledge exist, let alone talk about.
This is my favourite novel of the year. On paper, I shouldn’t have liked it at all. It’s set in a peculiar, conservative society that feels almost Victorian; sprinkled with social messaging and media references that make it contemporary. I know nothing of bohemian upper-class London; or the world of smothering families; or matrimony, which I suspect the title refers to.
I can be scathing about women who are helpless without men. But many are — certainly the two sisters at the centre of this book, Martha and Ingrid Russell. There’s an Austeneque vibe to their need for a husband, their views about the sanctity of marriage vows, the taking of married names, the certainty they could never raise children alone. Mason is honest enough to put all that out there.
For me, this is a story about two sisters: their closeness concealing a female competitive drive, the sibling rivalry lurking beneath the sisterly bond, even when it feels like “there’s a force field between us, impenetrable to others”.
This is hinted at from the start when classic daddy’s girl Martha says: “People think Ingrid is more beautiful than I am. I told my father once. He said, ‘They might look at her first. But they’ll look at you for longer’.”
For her part, Ingrid is the most irritating character; a monumental humblebrag, permanently pregnant and pretending to hate it, to a sister who clearly has profound issues about motherhood. She faux-moans about “four children under f***ing five” and tells Martha she’s so lucky that she can just swan around supermarkets. The performance seems to be to let her sister know how much sex she’s having, how fertile she is, how superior her life is. But I loved her vulgar humour: referring to her body after kids as Baginasaurus Wrecked and calling an ex of Martha’s Jonathan F***ing Annoying Face.
Martha is the protagonist and narrator, wracked with the pain of a mental illness that is never identified, one that has left her in a state of arrested development. She’s left to suffer what is depicted as a series of nervous breakdowns that are ultimately dismissed by those around her.
A talented writer, she is in a rut, writing a funny food column, which she says is just a food column after the editor takes out all the jokes. His very existence is demoralising. “He would send me notes saying: ‘not getting this ref’; and ‘rephrase if poss’. According to LinkedIn, my editor was born in 1995.”
She is wry, cynical and sharply observant; but not as funny as she thinks she is. Her jokes often get a round of applause, with remarks like: “It has never stopped being funny.”
Other characters — such as her eccentric, sculptor mother Celia and Peregrine, her wise and witty best friend — get all the good lines. I found Martha better at skewering the boring dystopia of life, or nailing the essence of friends or family with one detail about them.
She is at her best when putting into words the living horror that is mental illness, particularly its sensory effects. “It felt like pressure building up in my skull, like air being pumped and pumped in, until it’s hard like a tyre, but still more air pushes in and it begins to hurt so much, knife-hot and migrainous, that you imagine a fissure in the hard bone becoming a crack and the air finally rushing out and the relief from the pain.”
I’m not sure I’ve heard it as well articulated since Marian Keyes described severe anxiety as: “Extreme fear — as if I was locked in a car boot with a rottweiler.”
Keyes is the closest comparison to Mason; I felt the same sense of excitement reading Sorrow and Bliss as I did when I discovered the Irish writer’s debut Watermelon. They share an ability to see the darkest of subjects through a comic lens, but never shrinking from the rawness of the female experience.
Mason’s taste for interior monologue and a dash of modernism seems inspired by Virginia Woolf, who is referenced in the book. The family dynamic had echoes of Dodie Smith’s gorgeous novel I Capture The Castle; Martha and Ingrid could be a grown-up versions of Smith’s Cassandra and Rose Mortmain. The blunt humour reminded me of India Knight’s My Life on a Plate.
It also recalled Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble; another recent favourite. Both books give voice to women previously unheard.
Fiction: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
W&N, 352 pages, hardcover €15.99; e-book £7.99