Living with the snake disease

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A review of Nathan Filer's novel about a young man living with mental ilness.

Submitted: July 12, 2015

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Submitted: July 12, 2015



The Shock of the Fall

Nathan Filer

( The Borough Press, 2013 )


Matthew is a young man with problems, he has what he calls the 'snake disease' and the rest of us known as schizophrenia. The metaphor is an apt one since it tangles itself around every aspect of his life like a serpent offering explanations of reality that are as problematic as they are deliciously tempting. This remarkable novel tells is his own words the story of how he lives with rather than despite his illness.


Mental illness, usually appearing under its stage name of 'madness' has been a staple trope in fiction since long before the first Mrs Rochester took to her attic. The focus is usually on its more gothic or straightforwardly gruesome aspects, consider, for example, all those brilliant but insane serial killers stalking the dark nights of genre fiction in entirely predicable ways.


Few writers have tried to capture with anything like accuracy the pathology of mental illness, Nathan Filer has done so in a way that is honest, painful and ultimately inspiring. This is informed in part by his experience as a psychiatric nurse, his writing though also contains an empathy for Matthew that extends way beyond knowing the right symptoms and reaction to his medication to give him.


He gets right with laser guided precision the essential ambiguity of schizophrenia, it could have been caused by the guilt Matthew feels about the death of his brother, his not infrequent drug use, faulty brain chemistry, bad luck; or any combination of the above.


Filer also captures perfectly the cyclical nature of mental illness, there is no neat continuum from infection through treatment to either a cure or demise; instead Matthew is caught in an endless process of illness, recovery and relapse. Peripheral to this is a shifting cast of psychiatrists, nurses, support workers and family members, trying in their clumsy way to help and often failing; then trying again in the hope of failing better next time.


What makes this novel into a masterpiece is the voice Filer gives to Matthew expressed through his piecemeal attempts to write his life story on random scraps of paper. It manages to be engaging and honest without ever tugging at the heart strings in a contrived way. He is aware, again you expect through his experience working in the field, that people living with mental illness can be kind, selfish, wilful and often aware of the world around them in a way of which the owners of, allegedly, more normally functioning minds are incapable. Throughout he retains an awareness that behind the medically applied label Matthew is still a human being, with all the flaws and virtues that entails.


He is also good on the curious parallel society that exists within a psychiatric ward, the way so many disparate personalities and understandings of reality somehow resolve themselves into a community that is surprisingly harmonious.


Filer provides a resolution of a sort, though not in the neat, loose end tying, 'we've all learnt some valuable life lessons', way of a of the week. Instead he shows Matthew coming to a compromise with his ever present illness that is messy enough to be realistic.


You can stay up all night arguing whether some books are necessary and end up having to admit that although life would be duller without them most aren't. This one might be though, not least because it challenges the stigma surrounding mental illness by showing a largely ignorant readership life as seen through the eyes of a young man living with rather than suffering from his condition.





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