Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013: Maximum Shelf: Where the Moon Isn't

St. Martin's: Where the Moon Isn't by Nathan Filer

St. Martin's: Where the Moon Isn't by Nathan Filer

St. Martin's: Where the Moon Isn't by Nathan Filer

St. Martin's: Where the Moon Isn't by Nathan Filer

Where the Moon Isn't

by Nathan Filer

Equal parts family drama, mystery, coming-of-age and meditation on mental illness, Nathan Filer's unusual and haunting novel, Where the Moon Isn't, defies easy categorization. Whereas many genre-bending novels tend to overreach, this one succeeds on every level, most notably with its affecting protagonist. Some authors take their time revealing the unreliable natures of their narrators, but Filer cues us in very early on that Matthew Homes may not be the most expert of witnesses. "I'll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother," Matthew says, "His name's Simon. I think you'll like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he'll be dead. And he was never the same after that." Everything about this admission—from its tone to its content—implies that this point of view is not to be trusted. Yet as Matthew reveals himself through letters, documents, memories, observations of others and even his drawings, it becomes clear that he is one of the most honest protagonists you will ever meet. Matthew's reality is fractured and often very difficult to navigate but because it is presented so truthfully and intelligently, it is one we are able to understand.

What happened to Simon—and Matthew's confession of his part in it—is at the heart of this layered story, but Matthew tells it his way, in pieces and fleeting snatches of memory that are often interrupted by the intrusive present. Nineteen years old, Matthew lives in a small flat in Bristol, England, and seems, at first, to be more or less typical. He relishes his independence, has a distaste for being told what to do by authority figures, and craves connection with other people. He also grieves the loss of his brother, who had Down Syndrome and died when they were both children. But all of this is only the surface of Matthew's existence. He suffers from an unspecified mental illness that is gradually revealed. He has hallucinations, alternating periods of mania and depression, and a tendency not to take his medication or follow the outpatient treatment program designed for him by "the team" at Hope Road Day Centre. The interruptions he experiences as he attempts to tell his story are often in the form of case workers, mental health nurses (Filer is himself a mental health nurse) or well-meaning relatives who attempt to reel him back in when he doesn't show up for group therapy or fills his flat with mounds of dirt. Nor is Matthew's grief simple; it is mixed with guilt, as he believes he is responsible for his brother's death.

The details of Simon's death are difficult for Matthew to reveal all at once, so he begins the story of what happened that dark, wet summer night when the two of them snuck out of the house by describing the events and people around it. There is Matthew's mother, devoted and caring but crippled by her own anxiety and depression; his father, a gentle man who refers to Matthew as "mon ami" and who struggles with his inability to put the impossible to rights; and Matthew's beloved grandmother Nanny Noo, whose unspoken understanding of Matthew serves to stabilize him. And, of course, there is Simon—sweet, funny and, as Matthew describes him, heroic in his cheerful acceptance of the burdens he has to bear. Simon is still exceptionally vivid in Matthew's mind a decade after his death because he appears regularly in the form of hallucinations that speak to Matthew. The way Filer describes this—Simon appears in the flame of birthday candles and climbs out from under the bed—is nothing short of brilliant. When Matthew talks about being visited by Simon in this way—especially when he alternates these descriptions with his memories of Simon—it makes sense to us in exactly the same way it does to Matthew. Though unnerving, this unique window into a mental illness that is so often misunderstood and misrepresented is both interesting and enlightening. And despite his turmoil (Matthew's subtle but sharp descriptions of slowly being claimed by his illness as he grew older are heartbreaking), which periodically erupts in violence, Matthew is great company. Smart, funny and compassionate, he makes us believe, if only for a moment, that it is possible to conjure a loved one simply through the energy of longing and memory.

Beyond the merits of his story, Nathan Filer offers readers a great deal of insight into both mental illness and the limitations of current treatment options. When Matthew's illness lands him—again—as an inpatient on a psychiatric ward it becomes evident how bureaucracy, budget cuts and simple ignorance can cripple efforts to help those suffering from mental illness. But Where the Moon Isn't is ultimately a very hopeful novel. Though, as with every aspect of the novel, the ending is atypical, it is, in its way, both happy and healing. —Debra Ginsberg

St. Martin's Press, $24.99, hardcover, 9781250026989, November 5, 2013

St Martin's: Where the Moon Isn't by Nathan Filer

Nathan Filer: Pacing the Garden with Matthew

photo: Phil Bambridge

Nathan Filer is a writer and a mental health nurse. He has worked on an inpatient psychiatric ward, and since 2007 has been a researcher at the academic unit of psychiatry at the University of Bristol. Filer graduated from the prestigious Bath Spa Creative Writing with an MA in 2011. This is his first novel. He lives in Bristol with his family.

Where the Moon Isn't has a truly unique structure and storyline and successfully blends elements of many genres. How did the idea for the story first manifest for you? Did characters or plot first present themselves to you—or neither of these?

It started with two short sentences:

"I had no intention of putting up a fight, but these guys weren't to know that. And nobody was taking any chances."

That was the opening line from my first draft. It wasn't called Where the Moon Isn't back then. It wasn't called anything, and I didn't know that it was going to be a novel. It was just those two sentences repeating in my head, and an immediate sense of the character who had said them: Matthew Homes, 19, a chipped front tooth, a tentative diagnosis of schizophrenia, and a dead big brother who refused to stay dead. I then wrote, re-wrote and tweaked a scene depicting a group of nurses restraining and medicating Matthew on a psychiatric unit. I drew upon my own experiences as a nurse to get the setting right, the terminology, the surprising methodical calm. Then I deleted the lot. Virtually nothing from the first draft of my novel made it into the book you've read. Nothing except Matthew. He stuck around, year after year—growing ever more real to me. And with him emerged his parents, Nanny Noo, his best friend Jacob, Click-Click-Wink Steve, The Pig and all the other people who make this novel whole. I stopped thinking so much about what I wanted to happen in the story, resolving instead to let Matthew lead the way. He never stopped surprising me. With the right characters, I think plots take care of themselves.

Memory, and its notoriously misleading and unreliable nature, is a strong theme throughout the novel. For Matthew, in fact, memory almost seems a form of madness. How did this theme develop for you?

I think Matthew is desperate to be honest. One of the few things he has any real control over is the way that he tells this story, so he's determined to get it right. Of course his memory is flawed. That goes for all of us, no? Unreliable narrators are hardly the reserve of literature; we are each of us the unreliable narrator of our own life, revisiting key moments with fresh agendas and new sympathies. I don't think Matt's memories are any less reliable than yours or mine. In fact, often Matthew seems more reliable because he is so aware of his limitations, and because he doesn't have an agenda or a desire to make himself look good. That's not something we can all say. Not truthfully, anyway. And it isn't really something that Susan (Matt's mum) could say. I think her memory is the most flawed, but then, she has the most to lose in confronting the truth. I need to be careful not to give too much away. The point is, in talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.

Matthew is an incredibly complex character and you portray him with such nuance and depth. Did you find it difficult to inhabit this character over the course of the novel?

I never had the experience we sometimes hear other writers talk about, when a character arrives in their imagination fully formed. I had a reasonable sense of Matt, but like you say, he's a complicated chap. So I got to know him by spending time in his company. We'd pace the paving slabs in my back garden, with a mug of cold tea and a roll-up, muttering a few dozen versions of the same paragraph; stripping back anything too sentimental, too indulgent or too me. I was holding down a job whilst writing, so I often wrote very late at night or in the small hours of the morning, when all edges seem blurred, not least our own. At times like that, I wasn't really sure who was inhabiting whom. Certainly I felt his emotional journey (and at times his sleep deprivation) but I also know that I'm lucky. Matt was always having a harder time than me; my task was to be sensitive towards him, to prioritise his priorities—and to be kind. It's strange now letting him go. I feel protective, somehow. But I'm also very proud to be able to share his story. We'll inhabit each other for a good while yet.

Each member of the Homes family has his or her own mental or emotional challenges—some of these obvious and others not as much. Which, in your opinion, are the most debilitating and why?

They have a lot of strengths, too, though, no?

Matthew is funny and clever and perceptive. His mother is unshakably committed to him. His dad has a quiet hope and belief (shown in the words he writes on the bedroom wall). And as for Nanny Noo—if we each had a grandmother like her, I reckon the world would be a much nicer place. I'm not avoiding your question here because you are right that these people have their issues. I tend to think that the emotional challenges of this family reside in the spaces between them. If we take the anxieties of Susan, it wouldn't be true to say that these exist in her head, somehow separate from the world. They are much too wrapped up in her relationship with Matthew for that. And Matthew's illness is so bound up in what happened with his brother. But also in this space between them is a huge amount of resilience and kindness. And I don't think of any one of them as being somehow more debilitated than the others because that's not how they would see it. They're a family. They're in this together.

What would you most like readers to take away from Where the Moon Isn't?

A desire to share it. —Debra Ginsberg

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