Translated from the French by George Miller
Gratitude is the sixth book by French novelist Delphine De Vigan. It’s a slender little novel, I might even call it a novella, and explores one simple idea in a really beautiful and tender way. Michka is an elderly lady living with dementia in a residential care facility. As her life draws to a close and her mind becomes increasingly confused she becomes more and more intent upon tracing the young couple who hid her from the Nazis as a child. She wishes to express her gratitude to these people before she dies. Marie is a young woman who visits Michka in the care facility. She’s pregnant with her first child and as she transitions into her new role as a mother she becomes more and more grateful for the way Michka cared for her as a child when her own mother was incapable of giving her the support she required. Jerome is a speech therapist who visits Michka twice weekly in order to help her retain her fading language skills. He grows fond of the elderly lady and, as she deteriorates, begins to rethink his broken relationship with his own father. Michka teaches him an important lesson about seizing every opportunity to make amends before it’s too late.
I really enjoyed this little book. Each of the characters is simply but powerfully drawn. The emotions are neither over nor under-played. I particularly appreciated the way De Vigan does not shy away from the more difficult aspects of ageing and dementia. Her story encourages the reader to sit with grief and sadness rather than try to avoid it. “Sometimes you need to acknowledge the void left by loss. Abandon distractions. Accept there’s nothing more to say.” And yet it is also an incredibly uplifting book. There is so much warmth and genuine fondness between the characters it is impossible not to acknowledge that Michka’s experience of her last days and weeks is anything other than meaningful. As the title would suggest, this is a novel about being grateful for the life you have been given, even when that life doesn’t turn out the way you’ve expected. It’s about finding peace in the midst of turmoil. It is a novel shot through with hope.
I also appreciated the close exploration of how dementia has impacted Michka’s use of language. As a speech therapist Jerome is able to give the reader an insight into the aphasia and linguistic confusion Michka has to navigate every time she tries to speak. It’s intriguing and powerful in the English translation. I only wish my French was good enough to read it in the original version. This isn’t a high concept novel. There’s not a terrible amount of plot. It’s all about De Vigan’s exquisitely drawn characters and the way they pivot around each other, grateful for their friendship with Michka and determined to make the most of it.
Gratitude was published by Bloomsbury in 2021