Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
An unflinching character study of mental illness and the tolls on both the individual and their loved ones.
This is a story about, Martha, who knows that there is something wrong with her, but can't quite put her finger on what it is. After years of debilitating depressions, she finally receives the correct diagnosis, but is it too late to recover the life she has all but destroyed?
As always, I want to put a disclaimer that this book touches on mental illness, fertility, and suicidality. None of these will be touched on in any detail in this review, but I want to include a warning before you pick up the book.
Sorrow and Bliss feels distinctly British in its storytelling, which makes sense as Mason is Australian and the sensibilities are very similar. The story is told in a rather non-linear fashion, jumping between the past and present, and eschews traditional American grammar styles. If it is not something that you've encountered often, it may take some getting used to but is well worth it in the end.
Mason does a spectacular job of creating a character study in mental illness with the character of Martha. Martha is not particularly likable and is facing the consequences of long-term, mis-diagnosed mental illness in her life. Throughout the book, we hear, from her perspective, the experience of her debilitating depressions and the ups and downs of useless medication. As the story progresses, we learn that Martha's marriage is falling apart. Her husband, Patrick, can no longer deal with her depressions and rage over their life.
While this book is not romantic at all, it is full of hope, particularly towards the end of the book. The depictions of mental illness felt very accurate and even though Martha is not likable in a traditional sense, there is a certain level of vulnerability that Mason cultivates that makes her more palatable. However, this is definitely a privileged, white woman take on things. Through out the book, we learn about Martha's jobs and she just seems to float through life catching lucky breaks like her former boss insisting that she go live at his empty pied-à-terre in Paris rent free so she can get her head on straight. Most of us struggling with mental illness don't have those resources available so that felt very unrealistic.
“Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It's only the ratios that change. usually on their own.” -Sorrow and Bliss
The real heart of this story comes from Martha's relationship with her sister and father, but even those relationships can only withstand so much as she continues to destabilize. Finally, after several incidents, Martha finds a psychiatrist who is able to get her a correct diagnosis and medication. As with in life, this diagnosis does not magically fix her life or relationships, but it is a chance to start fresh.
I don't want to give in major spoilers, but I will note to keep an eye on Martha's relationship with motherhood in general throughout the story. Mason makes several poignant observations and instances with her characters around this topic that I absolutely loved.
In the end, I really enjoyed this thought provoking novel and its perspective on mental illness.
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