Falling Through the World
An exciting new novel takes its readers to the heart of one of this country’s most mysterious and little known illnesses.
Behind the tightly drawn curtains of an ordinary house, something strange is happening to Sarah – something she knows simply cannot be. Her body is turning against her, the world she knows falling apart. It seems nobody can help. The doctor’s confused, her parents argue constantly and her boyfriend, Dan, looks on bewildered. Even outspoken Ali, her closest friend, seems powerless against the force of events.
Buffeted by ignorance and conflicting advice from the very people who should be helping her, Sarah trawls through her unravelling life, searching for the moment where it all went wrong.
But can she put the pieces of her world back together again, before it’s too late?
I was 22 years old, sitting miserably on the floor of Malaga airport’s arrivals lounge. Beside me, an unwieldy suitcase and heavy backpack sat as immoveable as myself. A pair of security guards passed several times, glancing over at me with increasing interest. Finally, one of them peeled off and came to crouch down by me. In perfect English, she gently asked what the matter was. Had nobody turned up to collect me, perhaps?
I looked into her kind eyes and wished it was true. I longed for that to be the problem because under normal circumstances, I was perfectly capable of dragging myself and luggage to a bus or taxi, finding a hostel and sorting myself out.
I scanned the arrivals lounge, all the people scurrying back and forth, and wondered what it might be like to be any one of them. Whatever their problems, suddenly nothing seemed as bad as being trapped inside a body that could plunge me, without warning, into this misery.
I’d been ill for over a month with unexplained nausea and vomiting. I’d tried to carry on. In fact, that very morning, I’d boarded a plane en route to the intensive language course I’d spent the last year saving for. But half an hour into the flight, I’d had another collapse. I'd fallen, in a not so graceful arc, narrowly avoiding taking several fellow passengers’ breakfasts with me! The cabin crew had been kind and attentive but now, alone and without accommodation in Malaga, I faced a two-hour coach journey to reach my destination. The only problem was, I couldn’t walk more than two steps without fainting. Ill and exhausted, I just didn’t know what to do.
Years later, when I came to write my novel, Falling Through the World, it was moments like this I wanted to capture: the sheer loneliness and terror of an illness that strips your life away. More than anything, I wanted to show the journey through grief and denial, anger and sadness and out the other side to a place where you can start to think about the future again, to rebuild a life, perhaps not your old life but a life nonetheless.
I also felt it was important that the novel be character-led, not just a story about M.E. The central character, Sarah, her friend, Ali, boyfriend, Dan, and family had to fill the pages with life and energy. They had to be three-dimensional with strong voices and vivid lives of their own, not just props, sitting round waiting for the illness to happen.
In fact, the word M.E. doesn’t even appear until well into the novel. None of us were born with it stamped across our foreheads. When it does strike, whether that be at eight or eighty, we generally have far more important things to be getting on with than becoming ill with this cruel, dragging illness.
So, when we first meet Sarah, she’s a lively, sociable teenager, far more concerned with what she’s going to wear on the first date with her new boyfriend than with the flu she can feel coming on. We follow her through the confusion and denial of the first months, down into the pit of illness and onwards as she gradually puts the pieces of her new life together. Throughout, I’ve tried to challenge dark material with lively, funny dialogue and, I hope, a sense of humour.
The novel itself is, in many ways, my own personal triumph over M.E. When the characters first began to teem round my head, I was at my worst. By my mid-twenties, I’d been forced to move back to my parents’ house. I was too ill to read or write, talk on the telephone or even watch TV. Instead, I lay there, day after day, confined to bed in my small childhood bedroom, staring at the cracks in the ceiling. Entertainment came in the form of fifteen-minute bursts of audio book followed by an hour’s rest.
During this period, I began dictating tiny snippets of the story as it evolved in my feverish brain. Gradually, my health improved; I was able to write small sections and eventually type them myself, albeit on a laptop from bed. The novel got put away in a drawer while I returned to studying languages, this time with the Open University. Then, encouraged by friends and family, it came out again and I began the next adventure: getting it published.
I looked through lists of agents and publishers wondering who would take on a work like mine. I soon realised I didn’t want to spend the next three years of my life sending it off only to receive rejection slips saying it didn’t fit into the market or it was too big a risk.
Instead, I began to read about the alternative – self-publishing – and knew it was for me. I could decide for myself how my book looked, how it was presented and marketed. More than that, I was building a new life out of the ashes of M.E. and relished the opportunity to learn something new.
Finding out how to publish a book wasn’t easy in three half-hours a day on my laptop: that’s about all I could sensibly manage – not that I was always sensible! But I was determined. We have enough limitations and lack of control imposed on us, so when the opportunity comes to seize the reins it can be invigorating and life-affirming. It's also enormous fun!
For a while, my life teemed with proofreaders, designers, printers, websites and templates for internal layout. I was amazed at what was possible to achieve from a laptop in bed, so much so that, a few years later, I ended up writing another book, this time on self-publishing, in the hope of encouraging others to take the plunge.
Nowadays, I’m busy thinking not about the past but the future. I’ve come a long way from the girl who sat, alone and scared, in a faraway airport. I continue to study languages, but these days, I use apps and talk to Spanish friends from my sofa. Like most people reading this, I still struggle daily with a range of painful and often bizarre symptoms, but I’m enjoying taking control of my life and wondering, more than anything, what comes next.