I picked up this book on my recent trip to London. I was specifically looking for current bestselling British authors that we don’t hear much about in the US, and I saw Sorrow and Bliss displayed prominently in several London bookstores. I typically do not buy books without reading them first (I get them from the library and buy only those books I really like), but I took a chance on this one. Not only was it heralded as the “Novel of the Year” by several leading British newspapers like the Guardian and the Sunday Times, it also had a blurb on the back cover by Ann Patchett, whose work I greatly admire. That was what “clinched the deal” for me.
I am so glad that I found this book – it was amazing. However, the brilliance is not evident right at the start, such as, for instance, in a runway hit like The Girl on the Train (by Paula Hawkins, another contemporary British author), which was a book that was immediately gripping. In fact, not only does Sorrow and Bliss not draw you in right away, the languid pace at which it starts is the same pace that is maintained throughout the book, and it is only when you get to the end that you can appreciate what a masterful creation it was that you have just had the privilege of consuming.
At its heart, Sorrow and Bliss is a story about mental illness. It is told in first person from the perspective of a woman, Martha, who suffers from a mental condition that impacts everything she does and all of her relationships, right from when she was a teenager. On the surface, she would seem to have everything that anyone could wish for to be happy – she is beautiful and talented, she has a loving extended family included a sister with whom she is very close and a father who cares deeply about her, and above all, she has a husband who has loved her since she was 17 and continues to be steadfast in his love and support for her despite her depression and frequent emotional breakdowns. But her mental illness – which it turns out, has been passed on her by her mother – makes it impossible for her to live a normal life, hold down a job, have friends, socialize, etc., and almost ends up destroying her relationships with the two people closest to her, her husband, Patrick, and her sister, Ingrid.
If you don’t suffer from a mental illness, it is almost impossible to “get” it, to understand how a person who has mental health issues feels and behaves. But Sorrow and Bliss was able to do this for me – I was able to get into Martha’s head and feel what she feels, experience her grief and helplessness as she inadvertently pushes away the people closest to her almost to the breaking point, and understand what she means when she says to a therapist that she would like to simply “not exist” rather than just kill herself (which is the ultimate fear we have for those have a mental illness). In fact, the writing is so visceral in capturing what goes on in Martha’s head that I could hardly believe that this was a made-up story rather than a first-person account of someone who has lived with mental illness for an extended period of time. How else can you even conceive of someone who says they don’t know “how to live” in the world?
While I think that all of us are somewhere on the spectrum when it comes to mental health, it is rare to be able to get inside the skin of someone at the extreme end of the spectrum and feel their pain, their helplessness, their frustration, and their despair. Sorrow and Bliss is not an easy read, but I found it gut-wrenchingly emotional, poignant, hopeful, and in the end, deeply satisfying. I also think it has enhanced my understanding, not just of people with severe mental illness, but also of human behavior as a whole and the extent to which our lives are shaped by the chemistry of our brains.
Sorrow and Bliss
Author: Meg Mason
Publisher and Publication Date of this UK edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, April 2022
Original Publisher and Publication Date: HarperCollins Publishers Australia, 2020
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.