📖 🇳🇿 #67: A bestseller from New Zealand
Meg Mason on long-term mental health problems
Welcome back to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter that tracks my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’ve found your way over here but are not yet subscribed, let me help you with that:
Sorrow and Bliss by New Zealand-born, Australia-based author Meg Mason is hardly a book that needs my review. Shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize and featuring jacket quotes from Gillian Anderson and Ann Patchett, this is a book that has received a lot of hype since its publication last year.
Sorrow and Bliss is narrated by Martha, a British magazine columnist who has been on and off antidepressants since she was 17-years-old. Martha’s world is small and she only maintains relationships with a handful of people. There’s her husband, Patrick, a shy and sweet-natured consultant who Martha loves but cannot help pushing away; her protective and exasperated sister Ingrid; and her parents: Celia, a sculptor who is living with alcoholism; and Fergus, a failing poet.
Martha is acerbic, straight-talking, funny, and fiercely intelligent. The novel begins with a look at her separation from Patrick and goes on to tell the story of their marriage through flashes backwards and forwards over a twenty-year period. But the heart of the novel is Martha’s crushing and often debilitating experience of depression.
Normal people say, I can’t imagine feeling so bad I’d genuinely want to die. I do not try and explain that it isn’t that you want to die. It is that you know you are not supposed to be alive, feeling a tiredness that powders your bones, a tiredness with so much fear. The unnatural fact of living is something you must eventually fix.
Mason makes the interesting decision not to name Martha’s condition, even once she eventually receives a diagnosis. Instead it is referred to as “— —”. The point, I think, is to stop the reader medicalising Martha, like so many of her doctors, boyfriends, and friends have over the years. This forces the reader to concentrate on Martha’s lived experience and put any prejudices we may have aside in order to fairly consider what living with mental health problems does to a person, their marriage, and their family. I found it incredibly effective.
Martha is a funny and wonderfully dry narrator and I admired her sharp and precise observations about the world she inhabits. I also admired how Mason doesn’t let any of her characters off too easily: we see everyone’s weaknesses just as clearly as we see their strengths.
“I’m the worst person in the world.”
“No, you’re not.” Patrick’s hand came down in a fist and he hit the arm of the sofa. “You’re not the best person in the world either, which is what you really think. You’re the same as everybody else. But that’s harder for you, isn’t it. You’d rather be one or the other. The idea that you might be ordinary is unbearable.”
I really loved this book. It’s stylistically uncomplicated and a quick read whose insights and deeply-observed characters are testament to a literary novel. I was in a bit of a reading slump when I picked up Sorrow and Bliss and it truly snapped me out of it. I can see why everyone is such a fan.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (W&N, 2020)
More books by authors from New Zealand:
The New Animals by Pip Adam
Big Week & Other Stories by Airini Beautrais
The Stone Wētā by Octavia Cade
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
No Man’s Land by A. J. Fitzwater
Kurangaituku by Whiti Hereaka
Victory Park by Rachel Kerr
This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman
Greta and Valdin by Rebecca K Reilly
Auē by Becky Manawatu
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
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