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05Jun

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason review – tender, huge-hearted comedy

This moving novel about mental illness and sisterly love finds hilarity and wisdom in anguish, without ever diminishing pain

In her poem “Tango”, 2020’s Nobel laureate Louise Glück concludes that “Of two sisters, one is always the watcher, one the dancer”. It is a pattern familiar from life and from literature. In fiction it is usually the watching sister who takes on the role of the storyteller.

In Sorrow and Bliss, New Zealander Meg Mason’s first novel to be published in the UK, it falls to the dancer to tell her story as she sees it, even as she dances closer and closer towards the abyss. Martha Friel is 40, the writer of a “funny food column” that, once her editor has cut out all the jokes, is – as she sardonically acknowledges – just a food column. She has few friends, but is intensely close to her sister Ingrid. Her husband Patrick adores her. It is clear from the start, though, that Martha does not make things easy. Recalling a party not long after their wedding, she remembers Patrick suggesting that, instead of staring at a woman standing by herself and feeling sad on her behalf, she should go over and compliment her on her hat. “Even if I don’t like it?” she asks him. “Obviously, Martha,” Patrick replies. “You don’t like anything.”

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