Books

Meg Mason
Sorrow and Bliss

Sorrow and Bliss is a book you’ll want to devour in a sitting. Meg Mason has written an adult coming-of-age novel told with force, breathlessness and a confessional style that makes you feel as if you’re sharing intimacies with a close friend. It may be read as a story of an unhappy marriage, or a story of a dysfunctional family, or perhaps most of all a story of mental illness – and it is all those things – but at its core this book is about a woman trying to understand herself and find a way to live.

On the surface, Martha has a nice enough life, but we quickly learn she’s deeply unhappy and her husband has left her. Her disdain for him is clear and we see the history of their relationship unravel as the story continues in fragments and memories. There are also tensions with her mother, a narcissist and “minorly important” sculptor, and while her father offers some comfort, he’s powerless against the domineering wiles of his wife. Ingrid, Martha’s sister, is the one person in her life with whom she can be herself. There’s a simplicity and ease to their friendship until, as with everything else in Martha’s life, things fall apart.

There are moments of tenderness among these dynamics and Mason writes them beautifully. There’s a particularly vivid scene when Martha’s aunt plays the piano one Christmas with an unearthly grace: “Nobody said anything. The music was extraordinary. The sensation of it was physical, like warm water being washed over a wound, agonising and cleansing and curative … That was the first time I saw her for myself … someone who took care, who loved order and beauty and laboured to create it as a gift to other people. She lifted her eyes to the ceiling and smiled.”

Mason’s writing has been compared to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag for good reason. Martha has a Fleabag-ian wit and obsessive self-reflection, the humour sitting alongside her despair. We learn that mental illness has dogged Martha’s life. The writing on the experience deftly captures the pain in a way that feels fresh and revelatory. Interestingly, we’re never told what her diagnosis is (the words are repeatedly left blank on the page), which is a clever way for the reader to avoid certain assumptions.

This novel is sharp, racy and entertaining throughout its highs and lows. Life, after all, is a messy knot of experience and not what any of us imagined. There are lessons here about expectations versus reality, about selfishness and responsibility. Finally we see how Martha must come to grasp her one precious life.

Jemma Birrell

Fourth Estate, 352pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2020 as "Meg Mason, Sorrow and Bliss".

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Reviewer: Jemma Birrell