The shock of the fall

The Costa first novel award-winner, about a young schizophrenic man struggling with guilt, is a gripping and exhilarating read

“I have an illness, a disease with the shape and sound of a snake. Whenever I learn something new, it learns it too … My illness knows everything I know. This was a difficult thing to get my head around.” Matt Homes, a 19-year-old schizophrenic struggling within the mental health system, is conducting his own writing therapy, urgently bashing out his thoughts on an old typewriter and interspersing them with letters, doodles and sketches. The Shock of the Fall, which has just won the Costa prize for best first novel, is beautifully packaged, with drawings, varying typefaces and typographical tricks representing Matt’s swelling bundle of papers. It is a gripping, exhilarating read.

Sectioned after failing to cope in the community, Matt is fully aware of how intimidating he can seem to others, with his gawky height and army-camouflage gear, strange behaviour and internal voices. “Matthew … suffers from command hallucinations, which he attributes to a dead sibling. Crazy ■■■■, eh?” he writes, spoofing his own medical notes.

The dead sibling is Simon, his older brother with Downs syndrome, who died during a family camping holiday when they were both children. Matt presents the fact – “the shock of the fall” is what killed Simon – right at the start, but it is not until towards the end that we fully discover the circumstances for which Matt feels unending guilt. The device of delayed revelation can seem artificial and annoying in clumsier hands, but here it is effective. Matt’s voice – puzzled, resolute and frank – is dazzlingly rendered, and his descriptions of life on a secure ward are fascinating.

I read this about a month ago, I thought it was very good!