Richard Brown has had enough of his life of commitment, resentment, routine and responsibility. Staring out of his window, he enviously observes the tranquil life of Bill, the neighbour living in the bungalow across the road. From his lounge, Bill keenly watches as Richard’s young family grows.
Yet underneath the apparent domestic bliss of both lives are lies, secrets, imperfections, sadness and suffering far greater than either could have imagined. As the two men watch each other from afar, it soon becomes apparent that other people’s lives are never what they seem.
Like most book bloggers I read a lot of reviews and consequently my TBR list is longer than the iTunes terms and conditions. I added M.Jonathan Lee's previous novel, Broken Branches to that list after reading the thoughts of some of my fellow bloggers but unfortunately haven't yet had a chance to read it myself. I was therefore thrilled when publishers, Hideaway Fall sent me a copy of his new book, Drift Stumble Fall and it's my pleasure to be reviewing it on Hair Past A Freckle today.
Drift Stumble Fall is written almost like a diary, narrated in the first person by Richard. It opens with him lying in bed, seemingly in a state of nervous excitement as he looks forward to the following day and his new beginning. He is planning to disappear and has spent the previous week planning just how he intends to do that. But why would a married man with two children want to disappear from his family's lives? After this opening chapter, the book flashes back to to the preceding week as we learn more about what has led Richard to this devastating decision. The snow falls heavily outside meaning Richard cannot go to work and is stuck with his family - including his in-laws, Kenneth and Dina - meaning his sense of entrapment becomes both physical and mental. With the minutiae of the daily routine of his life detailed in all its mundanity, he considers how he has drifted for years. His determination to leave will seem selfish to an outsider, his children clearly adore him but he leaves their bedsides to plan his escape. However, it's this juxtaposition between his loving interactions with Hannah and Oscar - he plays with them, reads them stories, baths them, sorts out their squabbles - and his inner belief that he needs to leave for all their sakes which makes Drift Stumble Fall so poignant. Like so many men, he is unable to convey his fears openly and instead has reached this low point in his life where he feels the only option is to leave, believing he is a failure and that his family deserve better. He is envious of his neighbour, Bill who he often spots looking out of the window of the bungalow over the road. Bill and his wife, Rosie live alone, apparently unencumbered by the demands of family life and Richard wishes his own life could be as simple.
Alongside the journalistic chapters detailing Richard's thoughts, there are the occasional chapters revealing the sad reason for Bill staring out of his window. As Richard reaches his crisis point so too do Bill and Rosie as we learn of their heartbreaking tragedies. This isn't a book which uses explosive drama to drive home its point; instead it's the small moments which make Drift Stumble Fall so heartrending. It's the simple act of putting socks on cold feet, the kiss between siblings, the fatherly hand on a knee. It's not the big gestures which matter here but will Richard realise that wishing for some undefined other may not make him any happier? As the snow lays thickly outside, the sense of claustrophobia that comes from being trapped with his family means he finally starts to put his plans into action, even going so far as to book tickets.
Lisa and her mother, Dina are perhaps the least sympathetic characters in the book. Lisa seems to be lazy and irritable and Dina has a sharp tongue at times. However it's worth remembering that they are only ever viewed through Richard's confused eyes and perhaps he can't always see that Lisa is struggling with the responsibilities of life too, or that Dina's acerbity is due to worry.
Drift Stumble Fall is a deceptively gentle book, with its piercing insights about the secrets that people hold inside, the words unsaid, the fears they can't express aloud, and the loneliness that can exist even when surrounded by a family. It's an often devastating portrait of an ordinary man struggling with the everyday, yet is written with a sense of humour which means it never feels hard-going and with a sense of tension that builds gradually as we wait to see if Richard really will leave. With a truly affecting conclusion, Drift Stumble Fall is beautifully written, touching and realistic portrayal of a man who feels he isn't enough and as such is an important and sensitive look at the vitally important topic of male mental health. I highly recommend it and am very much looking forward to reading more of M. Jonathan Lee's books in the future.
Drift Stumble Fall will be published by Hideaway Fall on 12th April 2018 and can be pre-ordered or purchased here.
About the Author
His debut novel, The Radio was shortlisted for The Novel Prize 2012. He has spoken in schools, colleges, prisons and universities about creative writing and storytelling and appeared at various literary festivals including Sheffield’s Off the Shelf and Doncaster’s Turn the Page festival.
His second novel, The Page was released in February 2015.
His much anticipated third novel, A Tiny Feeling of Fear was released in September 2015 and tells the story of a character struggling with mental illness. All profits from this novel are donated to charity to raise awareness of mental health issues. This was accompanied by the short film, Hidden which was directed by Simon Gamble and can be seen here.
In 2016, he signed for boutique publishers, Hideaway Fall and his fourth novel Broken Branches was released in July 2017, winning book of the month in Candis magazine for September.
He is a tireless campaigner for mental health awareness and writes his own column regularly for the Huffington Post. He has recently written for the Big Issue and spoken at length about his own personal struggle on the BBC and Radio Talk Europe. His fifth book, the critically acclaimed Drift Stumble Fall is released in Spring 2018.
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