Ghosts is award-winning author and journalist, Dolly Alderton’s debut novel. It’s not the sort of book I’d normally turn to -a kind of Bridget Jones-style take on contemporary dating with lots of pop culture references, romance and a little bit of pathos on the side- and yet, I have to say I really enjoyed it. It’s a quick read, and for the most part, quite light but it includes several really tender moments which made me stop in my tracks. The novel follows food writer Nina, as she turns thirty two and attempt to navigate the world of online dating whilst the majority of her friends are having babies and settling into married life. The thing which make Ghosts a little different from other books of this type I’ve read, is Nina’s relationship with her parents. Her mother, aged 65, appears to be having a rather late version of a midlife crisis. She’s changed her name and suddenly developed an interest in feminism and philosophy. Her father, aged 77, is showing signs of dementia. Though the
novel shies away from using the kind of specific terminology usually found in dementia narratives, Bill’s prognosis is very apparent in his behaviour: he wanders back to his childhood home, he doesn’t recognise friends and family members, he becomes increasingly irritable.
I was not expecting to be so moved by Alderton’s portrayal of Bill and the way his wife and daughter react to his condition. It’s tenderly drawn and incredibly accurate. There is a real sense of Bill’s frustration. He’s an intellectual who is used to being respected and listened to. His constant refrain throughout the novel is “nobody’s listening. Nobody’s taking me seriously.” He’s aware enough to know he is being infantilised but too confused to realise that the things he’s saying are increasingly nonsensical. I thought Alderton perfectly captured the early stages of a dementia diagnosis when the person is aware that something isn’t quite right. I also loved her observation that Bill, with dementia, was not less like himself, but rather a kind of condensed version of himself with his personality, interests and affectations much more concentrated than before. I’ve noticed this happening with several people I’ve known personally but never been able to put words to the phenomena before.
I also thought Alderton was particularly strong in her descriptions of how Bill’s wife reacts to his condition. At first Nancy seems incredibly blazé and sometimes dismissive. She argues constantly with her husband and doesn’t seem to take his dementia seriously. As Bill’s illness develops and they’re forced to source a carer to help them manage, Nancy begins to articulate her anger and fear. There’s a wonderful, very believable scene, where she speaks honestly about her fear of losing both her husband and her own sense of self. She doesn’t know who she’ll be without him. She’s had hopes for their retirement that she knows will never come to pass now.
These same notions of hope deferred and identity re-imagined are best explored in the character of Nina. Alderton writes Nina as an incredibly believable thirty something juggling career, relationship, friends and family responsibility. As her father’s condition declines she’s forced to re-imagine her relationship with him. She can no longer turn to him for support and solace. She is now her father’s carer. It is hard for her to accept this role reversal and the realisation that her father might not be there to walk her down the aisle or to meet his grandchildren. The future will be different from how Nina has imagined in.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Ghosts quite as much as I did, or to discover such a fantastically well-drawn description of an intellectual man, living with dementia, a character I don’t often come across.
Ghosts was published by Fig Tree in 2020