Pitting Susan Lewis against Nathan Filer is like making Tweetie bird fight Muhammad Ali and I just don’t have it in me. Well, I do but I’ll do my best to keep as bloodless as possible.
The Shock of the Fall describes the life of a boy from Bristol dealing with his grief at the death of his brother and experience of mental health care services for schizophrenia. The Choice is about a young girl (21, not 19 as the blurb says) who falls pregnant, falls out with her parents and then is confronted by a choice no parent should have to make.
Whereas Filer’s first book is sparse and clear, Lewis’s writing is filled with adjectives, adverbs and every possible type of description she could find.
There are mischievous eyes, eyes full of mischief and eyes of grey lead. Hearts surge, worried faces light up, voices soften with tenderness, or are husky with pride. Cliches fill the pages, serving no purpose other than to provide fodder for those who don’t have the time to turn on their television at midday and catch another made-for-TV-melodrama.
We don’t even find out what The Choice is until about 300 pages in to a 500 page novel and then every possible plot combination gets thrown in for good measure.
In direct contrast, Filer shows and never tells. As the writer he doesn’t presume anything about our understanding. Every word in the Shock of the Fall is direct and helps the story. He is a storyteller because he has a story to tell and nothing more. Lewis’s 26th* novel is an example of pulp publication where words are put in one after the other and spat out to people who just want to stay distracted for a few hours and aren’t too fussed about engaging and growing with their characters.
One thing Lewis does do well, however, is write about Bristol. It doesn’t matter whether the story requires it, and it seldom does, but if you read the Choice, you’ll find yourself finding out all about Brunel, Corn Street, Broadmead, the Banana bridge, the ss Great Britain, Southville, the Tobacco Factory and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. All are mentioned quite familiarly by the Bristol writer and are well written. They add nothing to the story, however. Lewis could just as easily have set her story somewhere else and it wouldn’t have changed a thing.
The Shock of the Fall is not inherently Bristolian but unlike Lewis, Filer touches on location only where he has to. The occasional mention of Kingsdown in passing doesn’t have to mean much but when his protagonist talks to a homeless man on the corner of Jamaica Street and Stokes Croft (not Cheltenham Road as he writes) we Bristolians, know exactly what he’s talking about and why it’s easy to make that mistake. The area adds to the story, to the characters, it needs no further explanation.
One of the most poignant scenes takes a Bristolian landmark and misses it. The protagonist Matthew Homes’ mother, tells him of how she had tried to find the Clifton Suspension Bridge when she was younger and in despair about what to do wanted to jump off it but ended up circling around Clifton instead. Bristol is integrated into the story, not an aside, not a random description. Filer does it beautifully. The Shock of the Fall won Best First Novel and Book of the Year at the 2013 Costa Book Awards.
The winner this week, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, was never in doubt but it’s interesting to see that even though Lewis wrote pages and pages about Bristol, the snippets which Filer uses add more to a Bristolian sense of his work than constant references used as filler.