Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss review – tender and big-hearted comedy | fiction
In her poem “Tango”, the 2020 Nobel laureate Louise Glück concludes that “Of two sisters, one is always the night light, the other the dancer”. It is a familiar model of life and literature. In fiction, it is usually the sister who watches who plays the role of the storyteller.
In Sorrow and happiness, the first novel by New Zealander Meg Mason to be published in the UK, it’s up to the dancer to tell her story as she sees it, even as she dances closer and closer to the abyss . Martha Friel is 40, the author of a “fun food column” which, once her editor removes all the jokes, is – as she sardonically admits – just a food column. She has few friends, but is intensely close to her sister Ingrid. Her husband Patrick adores her. It’s clear from the get-go, however, that Martha isn’t making it easy. Recalling a party not long after their wedding, she recalls that Patrick suggested that instead of looking at a woman alone and feeling sad for her, she should go and compliment her on her hat. “Even though I don’t like it?” She asks him. “Obviously, Martha,” Patrick replies. “You don’t like anything.”
Like so many others in this gloriously tender and absorbing novel, Patrick’s remark manages to be both technically true and hopelessly irrelevant. Patrick loved Martha most of his life. Eight years and a few pages later, he leaves her. Martha is smart, compassionate, hilarious, fierce and devastating with keen eyes. She is also sharp-tongued, cruel, reckless, and prone to blasts of white-hot rage that spread over those closest to her like spotlights, mercilessly spotting their flaws. That she hurts the people who love her the most is something that causes her great anguish. It’s also something that she can’t seem to stop.
Despite all of this, people forgive Martha – until, like Patrick, they can’t do it anymore. His family stays by his side, Ingrid especially. They understand that she is not well, that since “a little bomb exploded in my brain” at the age of 17, she is crushed by a recurring depression which leaves her, for days, weeks or months. , exhausted, terrified and unable to function. During these episodes, it is not, she says, that she wants to die. “It’s because you know you’re not supposed to be alive… Living unnatural is something that eventually you have to fix. She sees doctor after doctor, piling up diagnoses and pills, but none of that makes a difference. Finally, overcome by the process, she comes to her own diagnosis: “It seems to me that it is more difficult to be alive than the others.
If that makes the novel dark or self-centered, nothing could be further from the truth. Sorrow and happiness has been rightly compared to that of Phoebe Waller-Bridge Chip bag: both perform this particular miracle of making us care deeply, desperately even, of a character who does unforgivable things. It is also very funny. Like Miriam Toews All my little sorrows, another masterclass in the fierce, infuriating and overwhelming force of brotherly love, she finds humor in the darkest situations. It is impossible to read this novel and not be moved. It’s also impossible not to laugh out loud.
Mason is brilliant about the family, its hallucinating absurdities and its deep wounds. Martha’s bohemian and drunken mother is a sculptor who ignores her husband and two daughters; when the girls were young, she organized parties where she could be extraordinary in front of extraordinary strangers, because it was not enough “to be extraordinary between the three of us”. Her amiable and self-effacing father is a failed poet “whose desire to help me has always exceeded his abilities”.
At its core, however, it is a love story, or rather two love stories: the story of Martha’s marriage to Patrick, a quiet and steadfast man, a broken man in his own way, and the older and deeper story of Martha and Ingrid, whose limitless love for each other ultimately turns out to have limits. Mason is careful not to label Martha by naming her particular condition (when she is finally diagnosed it is only called a “-“), but she shows us how mental illness carves its forms not only in people. who live with but in their families. It marks them all.
Mason achieves something extraordinary in this novel with an immense heart, alchemizing an unbearable anguish into something tender and hilarious and redemptive and wise, without ever undermining its gravity or diminishing its pain. At the end, Sorrow and happiness is a coming-of-age story, if you can come of age at 40. It is by telling her story that Martha begins to understand the truths that can save her, and to find her way into herself. Sometimes, it seems, the dancer is also the observer.