I’ve never made any secret of my love of a harrowing read. I love a book that leaves me feeling pummelled and wrung out … and it gets extra points if it makes me cry.
But I’ve just discovered that there is one thing I like even more than a harrowing read, and that is a book that also makes me laugh.
I’ve just finished reading Meg Mason’s bestseller, Sorrow and Bliss, and that is exactly what this book did.
Ostensibly, it is a story of the main character’s battle with mental illness, and how it affects those she loves.
But standing as a joyful counterpoint to Martha’s struggles is the humour that is weaved into the story. In particular, Martha’s sister, Ingrid, supplied light relief throughout the novel.
I loved how Ingrid joked about the awfulness among the joy of being a new parent – I don’t know any mothers who wouldn’t have laughed at her descriptions of exhausted, resigned motherhood, or her resigned despair at her husband’s uselessness in the face of sleepless nights and brawling toddlers.
When Ingrid, while breastfeeding, is reminded of her upcoming birthday, she asks her sister for a specific type of licorice. Martha baulks at travelling so far to buy her sister licorice.
‘The baby squirmed and pulled off. Ingrid let out a little cry and covered her breast. I helped her turn the cushion around and once he was on again, I asked if I could get her a kind of liquorice that didn’t require a journey to Croydon. She did cry then, telling me through tears that if I understood what it was like, being woken up fifty times a night and having to feed a baby every two hours when it takes an hour and fifty-nine minutes and feels like being stabbed in the nipple with four hundred knives, then I would be like, do you know what? I think I will just get my sister the liquorice she specifically likes.’
Amid her pain and suffering, Martha herself is also hilarious when she describes her off-kilter world view, only surpassed by her observations about the absurdity of the world as it actually is.
Her quirks are funny and endearing, although exasperating for those around her, such as the time she moves house and marks every box full of her stuff as ‘miscellaneous’.
Later in the book, when Martha is at her lowest point, I loved her sense of defeat when she is selecting a journal to write in – an activity to which she brings her deepest cynacism:
‘I chose one that was inexplicably thick, with twice as many pages as its shelf mates, because it said, on the cover, You Should Just Go For It. It was meant to sound carefree and motivating but for want of an exclamation mark, it came across as weary and resigned. You Should Just Go For It. Everyone Is Sick Of Hearing You Talk About It. Follow Your Dreams. The Stakes Could Not Be Lower.’
Somehow, the humour doesn’t detract from the sorrow throughout the book, but just provides relief from the pain. In some ways, though, it might even heighten the sadness by making it clear that humour, and joy, and bliss, exist as a kind of counterweight to it.
Martha’s jokes with Ingrid are wrenching as the two try to repair a relationship that has been fractured by Martha’s mental illness.
Patrick and Martha’s easy humour carries a sadness in knowing what has been lost.
It was a coincidence that I started reading Milk Fed, just after Sorrow and Bliss, which was equally hilarious and hard-hitting.
Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed begins with the protaganist providing a rundown of her strategy to maintain her strict diet during her working day.
It is awful and hilarious at once as it paints a picture of the lengths Rachel will go to to ensure she doesn’t eat a single unnecessary calorie, including disposing of the overhang of a cup of yoghurt.
However, underlying the humour there is a seriousness in the story as Rachel clearly suffers from an eating disorder after a childhood where her eating was strictly policed by her mother.
When Rachel resorted to eating a protein bar in the toilet of a bar, next to a woman suffering from severe intestinal problems, I laughed out loud, and had difficulty explaining to my son, who was sitting beside me, what was so funny.
These books are extraordinarily well crafted so that the poignancy is not overwhelmed by the humour, or vice versa. It is a fine balance (which reminds me of another book of this type, titled A Fine Balance, which somehow explores the tragic poverty of India with laugh-out-loud humour … and a sense of apprehension that the joy will be short-lived).
There’s a similar unlikely humour in Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, set in wartime but highlighting the absurdity of the human condition with humour.
I remember listening to Sean Greer talk about his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Less, and how he never expected to win the prestigous literary award because his book was funny.’
Clearly, the judges saw the beauty of pain suffused with humour. After all, there is nothing better than the feeling of tears of sadness turning into tears of laughter, all in the space of a few pages.