Book review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Today I am in a buoyant mood, because I’ve spent a lovely week reading Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. It’s a character based story. So no complex plots, no narrative arc and no unexpected twists. Just an honest, yet surprisingly comedic look, at generations of a family impacted by mental illness.

Sorrow and Bliss follows the main character, Martha Friel, from the onset of her mental illness in childhood, to the diagnosis she is offered as an adult. Martha is married to the kind hearted, long-suffering, childhood friend Patrick, but Patrick struggles to find and maintain his own contentment during their marriage.

I’m aware that a book about mental illness all sounds a bit bleak and heavy going. Not really the ideal summer read, you may think. But, you’d be wrong. Because Sorrow and Bliss is surprisingly easy to enjoy and has been injected with a dry, gentle humour throughout. It’s the book I wish I’d written, if only I were talented enough.

What’s good about Sorrow and Bliss?

So many things come together to make this book outstanding. I am always dubious about accolades on dustcovers – but in this case they’re well deserved. “An incredibly funny and devastating debut.” claims The Guardian. And I agree.

The realistic portrayal of the characters, and the family dynamic, within this book are what makes it absorbing and engrossing. They are loveable, flawed and genuine – both in their relationships with themselves and with each other. The dialogue is beautifully written, it’s like genuine conversation so it feels less like reading and more like being transported to life with another family. And the narrator, Martha, is witty and acerbic.

It also paints a realistic picture of severe mental illness. Martha isn’t just sad or tearful. She is at different points suicidal, violent and casually cruel to Patrick. She gives very little back to anyone, but demands a lot. And between all this – life just goes on. Martha attends counselling alone, attempts marriage counselling with Patrick, helps out with her nephews and gets a job in a book shop.

I considered whether I was so drawn to this book because I am a counsellor myself, but I don’t think so. The reviews on Amazon are mixed at best, but in my opinion this really is a beautiful book. And I don’t think you’ll regret buying it. My copy will be wending it’s way to my mum, and I’m a little jealous that she’s about to start something so lovely. This book, and its characters have stayed with me, and they may do the same for you.