Summer’s must-read novel: Sorrow And Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow And Bliss by Meg Mason: our review of summer’s must-read novel

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Journalist and writer Meg Mason’s third book, Sorrow And Bliss, is set to be one of 2021’s smartest novels, tackling mental illness, love and families with whipsmart humour. Here’s why it’s one for your reading list. 

All good books come with glowing blurbs on their front cover, but Sorrow And Bliss by New Zealand-born writer Meg Mason (out 10 June, W&N) arrives with some next-level praise. The Confessions Of Frannie Langton author, Sara Collins, says, “I will be telling everyone I love to read this book,” while Small Pleasures writer Clare Chambers describes it as: “Patrick Melrose meets Fleabag. Brilliant.” Gillian Anderson, Pandora Sykes and Jessie Burton are also fans while New Regency – the production company behind movies such as 12 Years A Slave, Gone Girl and Bohemian Rhapsody – has snapped up the film and TV rights

It tells the story of Martha who, aged 17, feels her “brain break”. With a loving dad who’s a failed poet, an acerbic-but-marvellous sister, Ingrid, and a semi-monstrous narcissist of a mother, Martha is beset by an unnamed mental illness as she moves through her teens and into a ill-judged marriage in her 20s before realising her childhood friend, Patrick, is in love with her and she loves him back. Then, as Martha is about to turn 40, Patrick leaves. It’s here that the story really hits home, as years and years of depression, anger, violence and erratic and self-destructive behaviour take their toll on both him and her family.

Is Martha as bad as she perceives herself to be? Can she ever be fixed? How can we all manage to get through life when anxiety, depression and blackness can weigh us down without warning? Mason’s descriptions of what it feels like to be struck down with mental illness are particularly resonant as she describes Martha’s state of mind: “It hurt to talk, to breathe, to cry, to eat, to read, to hear music, to be in a room with other people and to be by myself.” Here is what so many people experience put into perfect words.

At this point, it’s worth noting that while Mason is brilliant at examining mental health issues, this is also a book about very privileged characters (hence the Fleabag and Patrick Melrose references). With large parts of the story set in London’s Belgravia and Marylebone High Street and Martha at one point being sent off to Paris by a wealthy benefactor, this is a picture of a life that’s not experienced by 99% of the population.

Martha is able to access a stream of private psychologists, medication and specialists while anyone off to see their local GP will be familiar with six-month waiting lists for talking therapy. When Martha does receive a (deliberately unspecified) diagnosis and the right medication, it is something many of us dream of. But maybe that’s also the point and Mason (who references that novels are often about wish-fulfilment) is creating a lovely world in which the darkest things can still happen and our brains can still struggle. 

That’s us quibbling though because this is also a book that will make you laugh out loud in public places and lord knows we need some of that after the past 18 months. The whole book is filled with one liners about men in white jeans, Kate Moss on superyachts and passages that you’ll want to photograph and send to your friends: “Although she had not just commented on it, Jonathan explained to my sister during their only conversations that evening that people assumed he was naturally incredible with names, but in fact it was because whenever he met somebody for the first time he would make up a clever mnemonic that linked some aspect of their physical appearance to their name before he let go of their hand. That is why, for a long time, she called him Jonathan Fucking Annoying Face.”

Plus, Mason is utterly perceptive when it comes to motherhood, families, flailing careers and everything else in between. The relationship between sisters Martha and Ingrid propels the story and their shorthand rapport that only siblings have is beautiful to behold. And at the centre of it all is the tentative love story between Martha and Patrick. It’s a relationship that recalls Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and One Day by David Nicholls – here are two people who are trying their best but seem doomed to always be on the wrong page. Until suddenly they’re not. We can’t recommend Sorrow And Bliss highly enough.

Shop Sorrow And Bliss by Meg Mason (W&N) at Bookshop, £13.94

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Francesca Brown

Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown