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Book Reviews

“The Imposter” by Anna Wharton

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a pre-publication proof copy of Anna Wharton’s first novel, The Imposter which is due for release in early 2021. Anna has been a journalist, writer and ghost writer for many, many years and most notably worked alongside Wendy Mitchell on her bestselling memoir about her life with early onset Alzheimer’s, Somebody I Used to Know. It’s easy to see how the time spent working on this amazing non-fiction book impacted Wharton’s first novel. Dementia is a key theme running through The Imposter and the description of both the illness and Grace, who is living with Alzheimer’s are both incredibly accurate and deftly written.

I want to be careful not to give away too many spoilers when describing The Imposter. Suffice to say if you enjoy a well-written thriller with twists and turns and surprises along the way. You’re going to really enjoy this novel. The main protagonist Chloe is an almost reclusive young woman who works as an archivist in a local newspaper by day and spends all her spare time caring for her Nan who has recently been diagnosed with Dementia. Chloe’s life changes really quickly when her Nan’s condition begins to decline so rapidly she’s forced to move the older lady into a residential care facility. As Chloe faces this huge life change she also becomes obsessed with a decades old, missing child case she discovers in the archives at work. Chloe begins to lose touch with her Nan as she becomes more and more entangled in the lives of the missing child’s parents who have never given up hope that their daughter might someday come home.

I’m not going to say too much about the missing child storyline in The Imposter except to say it had me hooked from the start and still on tenterhooks four hundred pages later. Wharton is a brilliant storyteller with a gift for building up tension and introducing believable twists in her plotlines. As a Dementia narrative I also found The Imposter very convincing. It includes so many familiar tropes I’ve come to associate with Alzheimer’s: wandering, confusing times and not recognising family members, forgetting when and what is appropriate to eat. Anyone who’s spent time with a family member or loved one living with Alzheimer’s will recognise both Grace’s behaviour patterns and the ways in which Chloe attempts to protect and reassure her Nan. There’s a scene near the start where Chloe is forced to buy yet another identical electric kettle to replace the ones her Nan has melted on the hob, which I’ve experienced personally with family members who have Dementia. Wharton’s depiction of Chloe is also spot on. Chloe both resents and relies upon the support of the care facility and social worker and Wharton does a wonderful job of capturing her frustration. It’s abundantly clear that Wharton has done a huge amount of research into Dementia and as a result Grace is one of the more believable and accurate of the characters I’ve encountered in my reading so far.

I was also incredibly relieved to find that Dementia has not been reduced now to a plot device in The Imposter. The storyline which explores Grace and Chloe’s relationship runs parallel to the more thriller-like storyline in the novel and exists as a wonderful piece of character development, allowing us to get an insight into who Chloe is and how her relationship with her Nan has developed. I really enjoyed this novel. It was great to see a character with Dementia included in such a well-developed way in a novel which is not primarily about Dementia. I’m looking forward to reading more of Anna Wharton’s work.

The Imposter was published by Mantle Books in 2021 

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Book Reviews

“Minor Monuments” by Ian Maleney

Minor Monuments is a collection of personal essays by Dublin-based writer Ian Maleney. They’re all set around his family’s small farm on the edge of a bog a few miles from the River Shannon. They explore issues around belonging, place, home, memory and nature and weave together Maleney’s personal experience with his musings on literature, art and, most frequently, sound. Maleney uses sound recordings to capture and explore the landscape of his childhood. Interspersed throughout the essays is the story of his grandfather, John Joe’s diagnosis and experience with Alzheimer’s.

“I wanted to listen hard to his final emergence; to capture his life in the last stage of becoming – to record the person still forming even as he began, contrapuntally, to unravel.”

Minor Monuments follows John Joe right through to his death and funeral. As the older man slowly loses his memories and connections to the landscape, Maleney is questioning his own sense of belonging and how he’s come to think of his home. He spends as much time as he can with John Joe, documenting his stories and paying careful attention to how he interacts with the world around him. At several points in the book, I had the sense that I was encountering a kind of teacher/disciple scenario, with Maleney patiently waiting for his grandfather’s lived inheritance to pass on to him.

“A wake like John Joe’s is not just an opportunity to remember these people and their stories, but also a chance to share and build on those memories, to pass them on and to bind them closer to the people who are living out their own stories in the same place.”

The prose is neat and sparse but imbued with warmth. It’s like reading someone’s meandering thoughts as they pick their way through a difficult time. It’s impossible not to imagine the two men -one old, one young- sat together companionably, their very different world experiences stretching between them, their mutual fondness apparent throughout. This is such a gentle book. It’s deeply respectful and extremely attentive, as you might expect from a writer used to recording sound.

I also deeply appreciated the portrayal of a rural, working man with dementia. It’s rare to see this character portrayed in literature and yet I frequently come across older men and women, like John Joe, who develop dementia whilst living in farmhouses and on land that’s been in their family for generations. For these people, a move to residential care can be nothing short of earthshattering. They are intrinsically bound to their land.

I love this book. It was my favourite non-fiction read of 2019 and I’ve pressed it upon many people since then. Maleney writes with honesty and tenderness, always holding his grandfather as an equal. There’s an awful lot of wisdom in both what he writes and how he writes it. These essays are rich with humility.

Minor Monuments was published by Tramp Press in 2019

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Book Reviews

“Turn of Mind” by Alice LaPlante

Turn of Mind was the first novel to win the Wellcome Book Prize, back in 2011. It was also one of the first of a number of novels and stories which used the conceit of Dementia as a vehicle for investigating a murder within a crime fiction context. As such, it’s a really interesting example of Dementia being explored in fiction. The plot is reasonably simple. Dr Jennifer White, a once highly gifted surgeon, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She finds her friend Amanda stabbed to death and is horrified to discover four of her fingers have been so expertly removed they could easily be, (no pun intended), her own handiwork. Jennifer can’t remember killing her friend, but she can’t be sure she didn’t do it either and suspicion naturally falls upon her. She doesn’t entirely understand the situation and therefore doesn’t know how to react appropriately.

“My guess is that a smile would be inappropriate. Fear might not be.”

I’ll not give away any spoilers because this is an exceptionally well-written, twisty and addictive crime fiction read. You’ll want to enjoy it for yourself without knowing how the story turns out. What I will say is that LaPlante is utterly convincing writing in Jennifer’s voice. The novel gives us such a great insight into what it’s like for a person to be so confused, she no longer even knows what she’s capable of. Jennifer is driven by the desire to piece the events together and find out what’s actually happened. She begins to keep a notebook of facts and this becomes a narrative device effectively employed by LaPlante to fill in the gaps in Jennifer’s memory, keeping the reader clear about the chain of events and timings. We are also given snippets of conversations between Jennifer and her children, and live-in caregiver Magdalena, though increasingly Jennifer is unclear who these people are, and the reader is also unsure which of them are to be trusted. Jennifer suspects everyone, even herself and as we’re following the story from her perspective, we are also encouraged to be distrustful too. Jennifer’s narrative slips in and out of different time periods; memories mixing with facts and perceptions so it’s almost impossible to know what is true.

I really enjoyed this novel. I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of the few examples of Dementia fiction where I found the plot utterly compelling and just as interesting as the characterisation. The Dementia aspect of Turn of Mindcould easily have been reduced down to a simple conceit, nothing more than a clever device for writing crime fiction. However, LaPlante has clearly done her research and both the voice and characterisation of Jennifer is utterly believable. This is a very realistically drawn character living with Dementia who is also caught up in an intriguing story. It’s easy to see why the novel impressed the Wellcome Prize judges.

Turn of Mind was published by Vintage in 2011 

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“This Excellent Machine” by Stephen Orr

This Excellent Machine is the first volume in an anticipated trilogy of childhood novels by Australian writer, Stephen Orr. Set in a single neighbourhood of a small Australian town in 1984 it is narrated by seventeen year old Clem who lives with his mother, his sister, Jen and his Pop, Doug. Pop has been a surrogate father to Clem since his own dad disappeared when he was a small child. Clem is incredibly close to his grandfather. They fix up cars together in the drive and have been plotting for some time to take off on a road trip, using an old treasure map to track down a seam of gold. As the novel begins, the family are just beginning to realise the implications of Pop’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Whilst Dementia isn’t the primary focus of the novel -it’s more a coming of age kind of piece- Pop’s illness is a theme consistently revisited throughout the novel and shown to impact Clem’s life in significant ways.

There were several thing I really appreciated about Orr’s depiction of Alzheimer’s in This Excellent Machine. Primarily I liked the way Pop’s confusion and deterioration is explored within a community context. He goes out of his way to make the point that, at this time, Australians living at this socio-economic level, rarely considered external care provision. Pop’s Alzheimer’s is managed within the family but it is also heartening to see neighbours and members of the local community taking responsibility for the older man. They look out for him when he wanders off. Two of them agree to accompany Clem and Pop on their road trip. They even encourage him to continue tinkering with cars as a means of retaining his sense of self and ongoing purpose. I appreciated the idea of community support which Orr is exploring. Having grown up in a small, rural community, in the eighties, it’s something I recognised immediately. 

I also liked the way Orr gives Doug a certain amount of autonomy. Doug might have Dementia but his family and the community around him still look to him to contribute to decision making processes. They respect his opinion and look up to him. At one point in the novel Doug attempts to help a young delinquent get back on the straight and narrow and we are given a glimpse of the way people living with Dementia can continue to contribute meaningfully to society. 

This Excellent Machine is far from being a utopian portrayal of living well with Alzheimer’s. Orr doesn’t shy away from exploring the more difficult aspects of the illness. Doug’s daughter is often frustrated by her father’s condition and their relationship is under strain throughout the novel. Clem finds it hard to watch the man who has been like a father to him, decline and lose interest in the world around him. Orr also includes a heartbreaking scene where Doug gets to be a participant on the TV quiz show, Wheel of Fortune and becomes confused and frustrated while it’s being recorded. All this to say, I found This Excellent Machine to be an accurate and balanced portrayal of an older working class man experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s. It manages to hold the balance between honesty and hope throughout. 

This Excellent Machine was published by Wakefield Press in 2019 

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“Wrinkles” by Paco Roca

There are so many ways to tell a story and just as many avenues for engaging a reader. An issue as diverse, wide-ranging and various as dementia will require the whole gamut of an artist’s creative ability as they seek to find effective means of telling a story that isn’t their own. Spanish author, Paco Roca was one of the first to record the dementia experience in a graphic novel. Originally published back in 2007, Wrinkles was later translated into English and republished. Wrinkles follows Ernest, an older man, living with Alzheimer’s disease as he is admitted to a residential care facility and at first struggles to settle into his new home.

We see the residential care facility and the residents themselves through Ernest’s eyes as he’s given a tour of the building and begins to join in with daily activities. The visual aspect of the book allows Roca to be playful with how he interprets Ernest’s gaze. Some images give us a realistic idea of what Ernest is seeing, others allow us an insight into the mental associations and memories his brain is dredging up as he tries to process his new surroundings and friends. Roca’s images also add a layer of humour to the text. One page features eleven almost identical illustrations of older people dozing beneath a clock as time progresses from morning to night. The final cell on the page depicts Ernest being asked if he’s had a good day. The visual is kind of like an illustrated joke and also effectively conveys the monotony of nursing home life much better than any phrase or sentiment could.

Roca also leaves space between his illustrations in order to convey the idea of memory and language loss and also the notion of endless, unstructured time. Not everything is said or stated because, with dementia, not everything can be quantified or expressed in words. Towards the end of the book Ernest’s Alzheimer’s develops and more and more cells are left without speech bubbles. We see Ernest still present even as his ability to communicate gradually begins to disappear. On the final pages of the book Ernest’s features are entirely removed from his face and we’re left contemplating the troubling image of a man whose identity has been removed by the illness he’s living with. Though Roca deliberately includes a final page of images -Ernest present in past memories- I’m not sure I agree with the way he’s depicting a person living with dementia in the final stages. The message he’s conveying seems to be Ernest is no longer Ernest; his only meaning is to be found in his past.

The author spent a great deal of time visiting retirement homes, observing and talking with residents as he researched this book. The results are stunning and very effective. There are moments when it’s impossible to convey with words, exactly what’s going on in the mind of someone living with dementia. In Wrinkles, Paco Roca has shown how visual images can often speak volumes when words begin to fail.

Wrinkles was published by Knockabout Limited in January 2015

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“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett

I’ve been in two minds as to whether I should include Brit Bennett’s bestselling second novel, The Vanishing Half in my list of Dementia fiction narratives. The greater part of the novel does not touch upon the subject of Dementia. It’s an engaging, and incredibly timely, exploration of race issues in North America. Twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes, have grown up in Mallard, a tiny rural southern black community where lightness of skin is seen as desirable. The twins escape Mallard at the earliest opportunity and move to the big city where their lives diverge and take very different paths. Desiree marries a black man and after the relationship falls apart, moves back to her mother’s house in Mallard, with her daughter who is significantly darker than her. Stella, finding she can pass as white, marries a rich white man and moves to the West coast where her daughter grows up entirely unaware that she is mixed race. 

It’s a brilliant novel and a really engaging read and, like many contemporary novels, does not touch on the theme of Dementia until the final chapters. Lately, I’ve been noticing this as a reoccurring trope in contemporary fiction, especially novels which follow a kind of family saga narrative arc. As the protagonists -in this case the twins’ mother- grows older, they develop Dementia. I’m not questioning the appropriateness of Bennett’s choice to explore Mrs Vignes’ Dementia experience so late in the novel. However, in some novels, Dementia can feel like a tagged on afterthought or a neat way to resolve unresolvable plot issues. I’ve been noticing an increasing tendency to use a character with Dementia as a plot device. Confusion, memory loss and failure to recognise familiar people can, in fictional terms, be a handy device for creating mystery or suspending a moment of revelation. This is particularly apparent in the current craze for Dementia narratives in crime fiction. (I hope to write more about this at a later date). 

In The Vanishing Half, Mrs Vignes’ Dementia allows Bennett to swiftly and seamlessly reintroduce the long lost twin Stella, who has returned to Mallard decades after her initial escape. Her mother’s confusion and her inability to tell past from present means she accepts her prodigal daughter’s unexpected return with absolutely no questions. For Mrs Vignes’ it’s as if Stella never left. The cynic in me, could argue that Bennett uses Dementia as a handy device to resolve a lot of her plot lines in a swift and overly simplistic way. It’s awfully neat, to watch a family who’ve been fragmented and at loggerheads for three hundred pages, become united by their mother and grandmother’s Dementia for a handful of pages at the novel’s end. However, for the most part Bennet’s portrayal of Mrs Vignes’ Alzheimer’s is reasonably convincing and it’s so rare to see an exploration of Dementia within a black community I felt it important to include The Vanishing Half

I also felt compelled to note that Bennett’s inclusion of the line, “Alzheimer’s Disease was hereditary, which meant that Desiree would always worry about developing in,” is neither helpful nor accurate. Less than 1% of Dementia diagnosis are hereditary and ill-informed statements like this can cause distress and even panic in readers. I enjoyed The Vanishing Half immensely and I will defend to the hilt, the writer’s right to explore and record other’s experiences. But when it comes to publishing factual statements like the one above, especially in widely read novels like The Vanishing Half, I think it’s absolutely essential that the information conveyed is well-researched and accurate.

The Vanishing Half was published by Dialogue Books in 2020

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“I Remain in Darkness” by Annie Ernaux

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

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“Still Alice” by Lisa Genova

Many readers will have come to Still Alice via the 2015 big screen adaptation starring Julianne Moore in the title role. Moore, quite justifiably, won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Alice, the university professor, wife and mother who finds herself diagnosed with Dementia at the relatively early age of fifty. Genova chooses to focus her novel on a reasonably rare type of Alzheimer’s which can be passed genetically from parents to children. A large part of the novel explores the relationship between Alice and her three children as they decide whether to have a genetic test and how they’ll deal with whatever the results turn up. The Dementia also places strain upon Alice’s close family ties as her children and her husband have to learn how to navigate her rapid decline, repositioning  themselves as carers when they’ve previously been so dependent upon her. The third person narration offers us small glimpses into their confusion, disappointment and anxiety though most of the novel is focused on Alice. She is the hero of this quest.

I’d argue strongly that Still Alice is a quest narrative with much of the novel exploring ways in which Alice can find a way triumph over her diagnosis. You might argue that the possibility of suicide is introduced earlyish and revisited later when Alice is too confused to follow her own emergency exit instructions and consequently continues living by default. However, even the idea of an end of life plan could be seen as a kind of quest, with Alice retaining autonomy over her own existence. Genova is determined to find meaning and potential in the midst of Alice’s difficult story. A gifted public speaker and academic by trade, Alice gives a paper at a conference on Dementia, reminding the reader that she is still herself and can still contribute to society in spite of her diagnosis. Alice is also portrayed advocating for people living with Dementia and beginning a kind of support group for those diagnosed with the condition. The meaning is clearly implied. Alice is still an active and useful member of society. She is, in her own way, making Alzheimer’s work for her.

At several point, most notably later in the novel, Genova explores the complex tensions inherent within how Alice is viewed by the people around her. Her family are desperate for her to remain active, engaged and essentially, still herself. And yet, they’ve already begun the process of infantilising her as their roles as carers begin to trump their previously dependent roles.

“They talked about her, in front of her, as if she were deaf. They talked about her, in front of her, without including her, as if she had Alzheimer’s disease.”

Alice’s decline is rapid and brutal, Genova dates her chapters so the reader can see just how quickly the disease progresses over a period of two years. As the novel concludes Alice’s observations and interpretations about the world around her become less sophisticated, and in some ways, less anxious. By the final chapter, she’s lost the ability to recognise her own daughter and yet seems to be more peaceful than in the opening chapters where her mental confusion was a constant distress. 

“Everyone walked, busy on their way to where they must go. She didn’t need to go anywhere. She felt lucky about this.”

It’s a comforting way to conclude a novel about a woman whose life has been gradually erased. It’s hard not to wonder whether Genova, compromises accuracy, to give her readers a satisfying conclusion. The novel’s ending raises some of the biggest questions implicit in all serious attempts to write about Dementia: how cognisant is the person living with Dementia, especially towards the end of their journey? And, if people living with Dementia are relatively cognisant, even late into their diagnosis, is it less troubling for the rest of us, as friends, family members and interested bystander, to simply pretend they’re not?

Still Alice was published by Simon and Schuster in 2007 

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“Alzheimer’s and a Spoon” by Liz Breslin

Alzheimer’s and a Spoon – Liz Breslin

In New Zealand-based poet Liz Breslin’s first full collection she turns her attention to her own grandmother’s experience with Dementia. Her Polish babcia, Manuela was a devout Catholic, a soldier in the Warsaw uprising and an incredibly interesting women. In these 75 short poems Breslin documents her life, her experience of Alzheimer’s and her death. She includes several poems based on the research and case notes of Alois Alzheimer, the German psychiatrist and neuropathologist credited with first discovering the disease. 

Peppered with photographs illustrating parts of her grandmother’s story and intriguingly shaped word poems, the collection isn’t afraid to play with form. Snippets from recorded interviews with Breslin’s grandmother are woven into the poetry, whilst in other places, Alzheimer’s own notes are presented as found poems. As the poet skips from one form to the other, dipping in and out of found text, thoughts, narrative and impression she effectively conveys a feeling of confusion and disorientation; a most fitting evocation for a poetry collection concerned with exploring the experience of Dementia. There’s a sense here of language and narrative falling apart; “where are they off to, these words/ I am losing?” 

However, Breslin’s main focus is the gradual erosion of her grandmother’s memory. I was particularly impressed by the variety of metaphors and images she uses to express this gradual loss. In Eulogy at the Oxford Oratory, memory is powerfully and tenderly equated with a set of her grandmother’s rosary beads. 

“Warm with memory, some will

spill. Some I’ll keep in corners,

hidden glimmers. Much has been lost.”

Alzheimer’s and a Spoon is an honest, warm and occasionally funny look at what it’s like to watch a loved one forget their own past. It explores issues of culture, distance, language  and history through the lens of Dementia. There’s a big life and a lot of story tucked between the lines of Breslin’s short poems. When, at the beginning of dichotomy, she writes,

“Please pass me a scrumpled ball through the bars

secret me the memories you don’t speak

I hear the whispers of your stalwart war

but never from your tongue, never for real

it’s just stories, right?”

Breslin gives us a little insight into the mammoth task she’s set herself; telling the story of a woman who can no longer tell her own story.

Alzheimer’s and a Spoon was published by Otago University Press in 2017 

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“Goodbye, Vitamin” by Rachel Khong

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