Sorrow and Bliss is a lively and intelligent book. The author uses her vocabulary well and can summon up a hundred ways to describe ‘awkward’. A lesser author might tell you that a couple sat on sofa and she felt awkward. Mason says: ‘He was sitting at one end of the sofa. I sat down and folded my legs underneath me. Facing him, the posture felt beseeching and I put one foot back on the floor.’ How wonderful is that complicated word–beseeching, and how perfectly it describes this character. There are words and descriptions to admire all thorough this book. ‘The Germans have a word for heartbreak, Martha. Liebeskummer. Isn’t it awful?’
This is a novel hard to categorise; there’s not your usual plot-line running through the story. Sure, boy meets girl, but God, she’s complicated! The poor bastard! This is a woman-to-woman story and telling it like it is, working things out, a woman being honest about her emotional shortcomings in a way that makes it feel a privilege for the reader to be told. But it soon becomes clear that there’s more going on than the usual friend-going-through-a-blue-patch. You listen, hoping your undivided attention might make a difference. It won’t.
This is a story of Martha, a woman with a mental illness that renders her totally dysfunctional for months at a time. In a strikingly different ethical arrangement of the reader/writer contract (sorry, went all academic there for a second but it’s that kind of book), the woman is given a diagnosis but this is not shared with the reader. She is told she has —, like a Victorian novel where Mr — is not named. Fill in the blank yourself, reader. What do you think troubles her? I suppose to know the diagnosis medicalises Martha and our interest is as her as a person, but I think this device may frustrate readers and leave them distracted with the guessing.
Martha has flawed parents and a sister, Ingrid, whom she adores who is her rock almost every time she needs one. Later, her children in bed, my sister and I sat on the sofa drinking canned gin and tonic and watching the fire, which had been dying since the second we lit it. Ingrid speaks truth to Martha in a way no one else can and their conversations are fabulous. Here’s a truth, when Martha is at a dead end:
‘I can’t just think of something else and decide to want that instead.’ Ingrid said yes you can. ‘Even the women who get those things lose them again. Husbands die and children grow up and marry someone you hate and use the law degree you bought them to start an Etsy business. Everything goes away eventually, and women are always the last ones standing so we just make up something else to want.’ ‘I don’t want it to be an invented thing.’ ‘Everything is invented. Life is invented. Everything you see anyone doing is something they made up.’
The parents produce both Ingrid and Martha, so hard to categorically blame Martha’s childhood for her demons, but the folks certainly didn’t help. The mother makes art out of junk and father is a failing poet. ‘Very little in my parents’ home functions according to its original remit,’ Martha says, and ‘My father’s role in their marriage is relentless self-abnegation.’
Martha has family, friends, two husbands, a guru, a job and a crushing mental illness for which various remedies have been tried throughout her life. These included drugs that don’t mix with pregnancy, a fact that evolves into a millstone that flattens a hidden yearning into denial. She initially marries a man beneath her intellectually, though superior in terms of material success. “When I told him he had the brilliant eyes of a Victorian child who would die the same night of scarlet fever, he laughed excessively. His reciprocal comment was so banal – my dress, apparently, made me look like a 1930s movie star – I assumed he was joking.” That’s a mismarriage waiting to happen. Her next husband, the gentle Patrick, loves her indelibly, has done since childhood, but she treats him shamefully. She thinks of herself (and convinces others that she should be treated) as a victim and victims, she reasons, can behave however they like. ‘Nobody can be held to account as long as they’re suffering’. This philosophy only works for so long. Eventually her outrageously bad behaviour when she’s ‘off’ outweighs her brilliance when she’s ‘on’.
Despite the topic, this story is funny in a very English self-deprecating way (my favourite kind of humour), packed with smart, rapid-fire dialogue and droll asides, so even at its bleakest the writing never drags you down.
Martha quotes F Scott Fitzgerald: ‘What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.’ The shame of Martha’s condition runs right through this plot, and yes, it does make good telling, and it is equally well told. If you’re choosing this for a book club I imagine things could fast spin out into personal stories of unexplored shame around mothers, sisters, daughters. Be prepared and mindful of your readers, and careful as you go.