Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie
This slim volume was my first experience of the French author Annie Ernaux, a writer I’ve been intending to read for quite some time. This particular book has been namechecked in so many essays and articles I’ve read in the last few weeks it felt like the perfect opportunity to begin my reading relationship with Ernaux. I enjoyed I Remain in Darkness so much I have already ordered several more of her books. The writing is razor sharp, analytical and incredibly well-observed. Though it’s often painfully focused on the banal, repetitive and unpleasant aspects of watching a loved one’s journey with Dementia the language is so beautiful and each word so perfectly placed it still reads a little like prose poetry.
“My mother’s colour is fading. To grow old is to fade, to become transparent.”
Chronicling a period of four years, Ernaux sketches small intimate portraits of moments with her mother as an Alzheimer’s diagnosis gradually takes over her life. She’s moved from home into a residential care facility where Ernaux visits her frequently and also give us snapshots into the lives and experiences of the other residents. Much is made of the way Dementia removes privacy and autonomy. This is mostly viewed as a negative consequence of the illness. However, Ernaux also effectively explores the interdependency of the carer/cared for relationship. At times she seems to relish the closeness she’s found in being so intimately involved in her mother’s everyday life. She weaves in allusions to her own childhood, when her mother cared for her, the relationship she has with her two children and the way she is now caring for her mother like a child. There is a sense that this interdependency is both natural and at the same time shameful; that people are designed to care for each other, yet the harsh realities of caring are not something to be openly talked about.
“His mother too is suffering from Alzheimer’s; he talks about in a low voice, he is ashamed. Everyone is ashamed.”
Again and again Ernaux writes of her reluctance to write about her mother’s illness so honestly as if, in doing so, she is violating trust. And yet she cannot stop herself. Her own story is so closely tied to her mother’s story in order to understand herself she must explore her mother’s experience. At one point she goes as far as to say, (of her mother’s body), “the body which I see is also mine.” More than any other first person account I’ve read so far, I Remain in Darkness, seeks to place the carer, (and by default), the reader in a position of intimate empathy with the person who is living with dementia. As such it is a deeply upsetting but essential read.
I Remain in Darkness is a meditation on ageing, family, loss, love and memory which does not shy away from recording the more troubling aspects of Dementia. There is an ongoing focus upon the indignities associated with the illness as Ernaux observes her mother losing both her mental and physical capabilities. There is also humour present here, warmth and an attempt to explore both the present and past self of a person living with Dementia. A lot is left open to interpretation and there’s no attempt made to neatly join up the dots or offer a comforting resolution in the closing pages. As alluded to in the title, Ernaux and her mother remain largely in darkness throughout the book, struggling to find each other in the dark. I felt equally lost at times, yet relished the chance to glimpse what life might be like for a person living with Dementia who is constantly trying to find herself. I would recommend this book as an important read.
I Remain in Darkness was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2020