There are a number of reasons why I really enjoyed the American writer, Rachel Khong’s debut novel. For one thing it’s very funny. It tackles a relatively serious subject with gravity where gravity’s required and also buckets of humour and wit. Sometimes the humour and pathos are mixed together, as in the following exchange between Ruth and her father, whose Alzheimer’s is beginning to make him confused.
“I’m your daughter,” I say.
“You sound different,” he says.
“How?” I say.
“More sonorous,” is what he says.
Khong isn’t afraid to laugh in the midst of the saddest moments. There’s something very familiar about this as the absurdity of living with Dementia often means experiencing the whole spectrum of emotions simultaneously. The other thing I particularly enjoyed about Goodbye, Vitamin is the portrayal of a person who is attempting to maintain a normal existence even as their Alzheimer’s takes hold. For many people there is a period after diagnosis when they continue to work and live as closely as possible to their normal routine. This is rarely depicted in films or books. Ruth’s father, a much-loved history professor, doesn’t want to stop teaching even though his boss and colleagues have noticed his behaviour’s becoming erratic and have asked him to step down from his teaching role. What follows is an elaborate plan whereby Ruth, conspiring with his students, set up sessions off campus so her father can continue to teach the classes he loves.
“The idea Theo and I plant into Dad’s head is that because we’re learning about the Los Angeles Aqueduct, we should take an educational field trip to go visit it.”
Ruth herself is the narrator of the novel. Her story is recounted in chronological diary excerpts where readers are presented with a snapshot of her personal life alongside her attempts to care for and connect with her dad. Ruth isn’t having an easy time of it. She’s thirty years old, recently single and back home living with her parents. She’s frustrated that there isn’t a miracle cure for either her dad’s condition or the mess she’s made of her life. In the absence of medical remedies she begins to learn that love and being gentle with each other is the best way to navigate this turbulent time. Ruth seems to find it easiest to make sense of the journey her father is taking if she takes each moment for what it is and savours their time together. There might not be much she can do for her father, but she can spend significant time with him.
“Today, I caught you in the garage, eating the peaches from the earthquake kit. I joined you. We drank the syrup and then we drank the packets of water.
Here I am, in lieu of you, collecting the moments.”
This is such a warm and generous wee novel. It’s not without its heartbreaking moments. At one point her father, realising what Ruth’s sacrificing, encourages her to move on with her life and I found this exchange particularly poignant
“You didn’t want me feeling obligated to stay. You said you didn’t want me feeling guilty. You said you didn’t want me seeing you act loony tunes.”
Khong has Ruth respond with sensitivity and quick humour, giving her father a dose of daughterly cheek. It’s in these small and incredibly familiar moments that Goodbye, Vitamin really soars. This is such a realistic picture of a tight knit family dealing with a difficult situation in the only way they know how: food, time, love and taking the piss.
Goodbye Vitamin was published by Schribner in 2017