An Absent Mind is a slim novel set in contemporary Canada. It explores the impact of a Dementia diagnosis on a close family unit. The novel opens with the patriarch, Saul beginning to acknowledge his own mental confusion. It moves through his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the advent of the illness and subsequent decline, his move to a care facility and eventually, both his own death and that of his wife, Monique whom he actually outlives. The story is told from the perspective of five different characters, all of whom speak directly to the reader in first person monologues. We meet Saul himself, a proud and occasionally difficult Jewish man, used to getting his own way, and his longsuffering wife Monique who isn’t even certain she’s made the right decision in staying married for so long to such an overbearing man.
“Given everything, would I do it all over again? Maybe. Maybe not. But I made my choice years ago, and I am almost sixty-six and a grandmother.”
The other monologues are delivered by Saul’s son Joey, with whom he has a troubled relationship, his devoted daughter Florence and the Alzheimer’s specialist who oversees Saul’s treatment and care. The first person sections narrated by Saul himself give an excellent insight into the progress of his illness and how frustrated he is with his situation. It’s not easy for a man as powerful and proud as Saul to watch his autonomy gradually disappear. His accounts of events, lucid at first, become increasingly rambling and confusing as the novel proceeds. Saul’s chapters become shorter as his grasp on language erodes, until the final few chapters consist of nothing but strange composite words, (“Just…hEr as Pretti…Choo fLeur,”) which can be interpreted as meaningful within the context of his story, but are nonsensical to the uninformed. However, what makes An Absent Mind a truly unique reading experience in regards to Dementia, is the way it depicts the collateral damage inflicted upon those close to Saul.
Monique struggles to serve a now vulnerable man who has often made himself deliberately hard to like. Saul isn’t particularly affectionate or grateful. He has always been a demanding man. Now, faced with becoming her husband’s carer, Monique wears herself down physically and mentally trying to look after someone who never went out of his way to look after her. It’s a familiar and very believable snapshot of what many families and partners face when a difficult person develops Dementia. Rill is brave and honest to state so bluntly that an obnoxious person who is living with Dementia will most likely be as unlikable as they were before developing the illness. Joey also struggles with this. His father never tells him he loves him and is constantly putting his son down. Joey finds it hard to love and feel loved by his father. It’s only after Saul loses his ability to communicate that Joey finds a note scribbled in his father’s handwriting,
“Dear Joey, I never told you while I was alive how much I loved you and how proud I am…”
Rather than bringing some sense of closure, this admission leads Joey to wonder why his father never once, in forty years, uttered these words himself. An Absent Mind is a novel about families and the complex and subtle ways in which people can both love and utterly devastate each other. It’s a novel about missed opportunities and important truths which have gone unsaid, dependency, disappointment and failed expectations. All these issues are present in most families. However, Rill in his novel, exemplifies the way Dementia will exasperate existing problems and expose a family’s fault lines. He paints a bleak but unflinchingly honest portrait of a real family trying to muddle through.
An Absent Mind was published by Lake Union in 2015