Nathan Filer’s stunning debut wins Costa book award

Filer’s work is based on experiences as a psychiatric nurse. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

“I live a Cut & Paste kind of life”. So the narrator of Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall tells us. But in terms of its daring exploration of a life little understood and left in shadow, there is certainly nothing “Cut & Paste” about Filer’s first novel – “So good” according to the judges of the Costa Book Awards, “it will make you feel a better person”. And so good that last night it was awarded Costa Book of the Year 2013.

Filer’s novel was up against other category winners: Kate Atkinson’s powerful novel, Life After Life (the bookies’ favourite); Michael Symmons Roberts’ collection of poems, Drysalter; Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography, The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer & Preacher of War, and Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse, hailed “an instant classic” for children by judges.

As diverse as these category winners appear, they resonate with each other in ways which give us pause for thought. Revisiting the rise of fascism, Atkinson and Hughes-Hallett reconsider the perpetual violence seething beneath the civilised veneer. Moreover, Atkinson, along with Filer and Riddell, explores the impact of loss and our need for reconciliation. As we become increasingly conscious of how precarious and unstable our individual and collective histories are, it seems literature has a growing role to play in helping us to make sense of what Michael Symmons Roberts finds is “a world more fragile than we thought”.

‘So good … makes you a better person’ Harper Collins

Filer takes us into the fragile world of a young man living with schizophrenia and trying desperately to cope with the childhood trauma of his brother’s death by writing his own life story. British and American literature has long been a cultural space open to exploring mental illness: from Shakespeare’s King Lear to Fitzgerald, Kesey, Plath – and more recently Clare Allan’s Poppy Shakespeare.

The Shock of the Fall builds on these previous insights, particularly the first person narrative tone of Mark Haddon’s autistic narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which also won the Costa Book of the Year (then Whitbread) Award in 2003. Like Haddon’s Christopher Boone, Filer’s Matthew Homes tells us as much about his writing process as he does about himself.

He invites us to “trust” him; we do, and in a way which enables us to see what life is for those like Matthew who live distrusting themselves and distrusted by others. Filer’s genius in this novel is to make us see how Matthew reads the world differently – “I’m a person who reads a lot of meaning into stuff, forever, hunting out the small print”. In so doing, Matthew understands how he reads and misreads, and how he is read and misread by others, how words, gestures, expressions are labile, how “everyday stuff like a smile or a handshake becomes loaded with conflicting messages”.

But Filer’s goal here is more than just to generate empathy for the marginalised, more even than giving voice to those who are trapped within themselves. As a former mental health nurse, Filer forces us to see that the “Cut & Paste life” is the product of an overburdened health-care system that cannot seem to help but undermine the human dignity of those in its care.

Matthew’s narrative mirrors the routine existence of hospital wards and medication, where the hope of an escorted outing, even if the paperwork is in place, is dashed by staff shortages. The Day Centre he visits each week is part of this repetition. It’s also, however, the place where Matthew attends Art Group and begins to piece his life together as he takes up writing. But Matthew’s narrative is brought to a close just as the centre is shut due to NHS cutbacks. Filer’s concerns about mental health services in Britain are clear. As he underscores in a recent article for the Guardian recounting his experiences working on a psychiatric acute ward: “right now we are moving in entirely the wrong direction. We are failing the most vulnerable of our society”.

Matthew Homes sets out to “Unfold everything neatly” and “to follow the folds that are already there”. As the narrative switches between past and present, it’s this promise of the unfolding that captivates. But when you put the book down, it’s not the unfolded tale so much as the folds themselves in this life that stay with you. This is a profound, provoking and exceptional novel, richly deserving of this award, and hopefully the herald of many more from this new and exciting author.