'The Shock of the Fall' - Review

Fiction does not always get the portrayal of mental illness right. The recent uproar over the hit Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why, based on the bestselling novel by Jay Asher, is one of the more well-known instances of this, as critics pointed out problematic elements that reinforced existing myths, like the idea that loving someone enough can prevent them from killing themselves. When it comes to schizophrenia, depictions don’t get any better. A study of entertainment media in 2012 revealed that around 80% of fictional characters affected by this illness were portrayed as violent and dangerous to those around them, whilst nearly a third were seen as homicidal. Unsurprisingly, this has done nothing to help the 220,000 people in the UK who are being treated for a disease which, thanks to these ideas, have ensured that most people fear schizophrenia without attempting to understand it.

Enter Nathan Filer, a registered mental health nurse whose 2013 debut novel The Shock of the Fall has won several literary awards, including the Costa Book of the Year. Having worked on the manuscript for a gruelling seven years, and admitting in an interview that nothing from the first draft made it into the final product, it’s clear that Filer took great care to ensure that his work would be as accurate and sensitive as possible; something that he must have known would be important, given his past professional experience.

                                                                                                                                                                                              Sarah Lee, The Guardian

The end result is a masterpiece of both humour and heartbreak. Following the story of Matthew, a young man typing up his experiences of schizophrenia whilst struggling with the guilt of his brother Simon’s death, Filer has created a character for whom people will feel compassion rather than fear, masterfully demonstrating the realities of the illness whilst not allowing it to determine Matthew’s whole personality. It’s an emotional rollercoaster to read, leaping from touching scenes like the description of Matthew’s secret handshake with his Dad, to the painful recollections of what happened to Simon. At no point do Matthew’s actions feel threatening or unreasonable: with the narrative placed squarely in Matthew’s hands, we can understand exactly why he thinks the way he does, and can sympathise with his struggles. It’s a much-needed change to how schizophrenia is usually portrayed, and can only serve to improve public perceptions of those going through battles similar to Simon and Matthew's. While it’s not a popular original show, it does far better than any existing entertainment in matching an enthralling plot with a helpful, positive representation of mental illness. Netflix, take note: this is how it’s done.