This book recently won the Costa Book of the Year and I reckoned it had to be something as it won over McBride's Girl is a Half-formed Thing. It is.
Simply, it's the story of a nineteen year old young man, Matthew, suffering from schizophrenia caused by his guilt and grief as a result of an accident which killed his older brother, Simon, some ten years previously. At the end of the book, Matt - who is writing the book - says 'writing about the past is a way of reliving it ... but this story has never been a keepsake - it's finding a way to let go'. In some ways it recalls The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but more poignant and, at the same time, funny.
At the very beginning of the book, he says 'I'll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother ... I think you're going to like him... but in a couple of pages he'll be dead. And he was never the same after that'. And that is in fact the nub of it. Simon has Down's Syndrome and is five years older than Matt who adores him. It is apparent that Matt had something to do with his death but we are kept guessing for a long time. As the years pass, Filer through Matt's own account chronicles his disintegration mentally with great skill. For Matt, Simon is constantly present, calling on him to come out and play, hiding under his bed and talking to him until his reality and dreams become confused. Matt writes that 'we each have a wall that separates our dreams from reality, but mine has cracks in it. The dreams can wriggle and squeeze their way through, until it's hard to know the difference'. Sometimes, then, the wall collapses and life becomes a nightmare.
Filer is himself a registered mental health nurse and uses his knowledge here to good effect. Matt spends one chapter charting the progress of one day in a psychiatric hospital hour by hour where the over-riding problem is sheer boredom with nothing to do. The day is punctuated by meals, medication and cigarettes and at one point he is urged by a nurse to distract himself by getting dressed! Becoming acquainted with the mind of a schizophrenic through Matt's writing is fascinating. It is curious how astute and aware he is while at the same time, his delusions and imaginings blend seamlessly into his life. To emphasise various episodes, Filer makes use of postmodern gambits by varying typefaces, playing with layout, incorporating some charming sketches and even the page numbering appears to be done by hand. In some novels, this can grate on one but here it is peculiarly apt and effective.
The other people in Matt's life are beautifully drawn. There are his loving parents, gentle and caring of him despite their own overwhelming grief. And his indefatigable Granny, Nanny Noo, who is remarkably in tune with him and does her best to help him avoid being sectioned. And his old school friend, Jacob, who tries to share a flat with him but eventually cannot hack it. Throughout it all, though, is Matt's growing inability to maintain relationships as he slips from reality.
This is a moving novel, more than worthy of the Costa award and well worth reading.