Sorrow and Bliss is the second novel by Meg Mason, a New Zealand writer living in Sydney. On the longlist for the prestigious Jann Medlicott Acorn Award for Fiction at the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, it’s the story of a woman called Martha: her hollow highs, her life-changing lows, her depression and suicidal ideation. It’s not as grim as it sounds – Mason’s writing is blisteringly funny, that’s also chic and modern in its execution.
The novel follows tall, blonde, and brilliant Martha through the years around 1994 to 2017, as she navigates life with an undiagnosed mental illness. She’s a classic unreliable narrator, and story moves around in time in fragmented anecdotes, jumping from her fortieth birthday party to her teenage years without skipping a beat, leaving stories unfinished at times, relying on the reader to make the connections and to understand the truth.
Throughout the story, Martha lives in Shepherd Bush with her father Fergus, a failed poet, and her mother Celia, a sculptor. The house is a chaotic nest of love and dysfunction. Martha and her sister Ingrid are close in age, and so alike they could be twins. Their relationship functions as the common twin trope in fiction – so similar and yet so different, so close and yet so disparate. They bond over their anger at their mother’s cold and callous nature, her alcoholic benders, and her sporadic attempts to kick out Fergus before taking him back again. Only there’s something very different about Martha, and it moves her away from Ingrid and everyone else.
Family is important in Sorrow and Bliss, and Martha’s painfully naive about their secrets. Most of the story revolves around Martha’s immediate and extended family: her aunt Winsome, uncle Rowland, and cousins Nicholas, Oliver, and Jessamine. Celia’s sister Winsome has married into wealth and lives in Belgravia, and we come to see the relationship between Celia and Winsome mirrors that of Ingrid and Martha. Each person in this family is in their own way self-centred, shallow, and cruel; although occasionally, they show each other the incomparable tenderness of unconditional love.
However, Martha’s challenges force her family to reassess how unconditional love works. How can you provide support in the face of unrelenting pain and illness? Would it be easier to give up on someone who can’t seem to ‘help themselves’? Many people will read this novel and see the dynamics of the Russell family mirroring their own journey with a family member who requires deep and unending support and understanding. It’s difficult and confronting, but an important story to tell.
While Sorrow and Bliss is about Martha and her journey to understand herself and her family, it’s also about the nature of love and being wanted. Martha lives in a world determined by her relationship to men: her well-meaning father, ill-fated first husband Jonathan, the semi-magical friend Peregrine, the ever-present second husband Patrick. Which men give her what she wants, and which men don’t. Who desires her, and who doesn’t. What an indictment of the way women often live! Finding a way through the patriarchy. Wondering constantly about who is admiring us. Who is loving us. Who might give us what we want. It’s a man who gives Martha what she wants: a psychiatrist, who gives her the diagnosis that makes sense of the lifetime of sadness; and it’s also a man who can’t give her what she wants – her second husband Patrick, who Martha assigns as the demon in her life because of his failure to diagnose her and to see through her lies and make her a mother. At times I ached for Martha to find a woman with whom she could find some peace, yet by the height of the drama, she’s pushed all the women who might support her away.
Patrick is but a shadow of a character in this book: Martha admits as much when she realises she doesn’t once think about his thoughts, his beliefs or his experiences. She’s awful to him, really. Everyone’s awful to him. I couldn’t understand why he continued to be associated with the family. But again, we are only hearing Martha’s interpretation of events. The unreliability of her story comes into play again and again, and it’s frustrating and real and dripping with sorrow as we see characters misinterpret one another.
Because we never hear Patrick’s side of the story, we never understand why he loves her, just that he does, and he’s willing to go through nearly anything to be with her. The love story feels both shallow and so powerful it shatters your heart into tiny pieces.
In a novel with many vivid scenes, Sorrow and Bliss sometimes missed an opportunity to give us more emotional power. A few scenes told in summary or flashback would have had a different impact if they’d been shown as present action. One example of this is when Martha mentions how an email made her so angry she repeatedly slammed the pointed end of her clothes iron into the wall, creating a triangular pattern of dents above her desk. Removing us from that scene, by virtue of mentioning it in only in a few lines during another scene, holds us at arm’s length from Martha and the truth of her lived experience. We’re only given snippets of this fascinating story, and I desired to be let inside the controlled narrative and see what was hidden.
It’s her story, but who is Martha, really? I’m not sure we know her truly, even at the end. We rely on what she’s told by other people, because Martha hides her true cravings and ambitions from the reader and her family. We’re told she’s beautiful – less so than her sister, but in a better way: ‘Father said, ”They might look at her first. But they’ll want to look at you for longer.”’ Several characters tell her she’s brilliant and clever and funny, although there’s little evidence of this in the book. Sadly, due to her illness, her potential is given no room to develop. She’s bounced around from doctor to doctor, provided with prescriptions like a medical guinea pig. What a difference it would’ve made if she’d been diagnosed earlier! Plenty of women can attest to this issue: in reality, women are diagnosed years later than men for almost all illnesses. Lucky for Martha, she has family with money – she’s never homeless, never abandoned. Her autonomy is oppressed under the dictatorship of her illness, but through it all she’s loved and wanted and safe.
Heavy on the sorrow, light on the bliss, Martha is irrational and irritating, heart-warming and relatable. Mason’s writing is fresh and stylish, creating an intimate novel that feels utterly, wonderfully contemporary. It’s bitter and funny with off-hand British humour, which makes up for the times Martha is frustrating enough to throw the book across the room.
Sorrow and Bliss is about legacy and inheritance, the genetic debts our parents pass down to us; it’s about homes and the memories that can be created and misremembered between their walls; it’s about being forgiven and forgiving, about forgetting and about holding each other close. It’s about personal crisis and the damage to those around us, it’s about parents and children and the lives we lead, as opposed to the lives we dreamed of. It’s about desire and being wanted, and about being truthful about what we want in return.