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Book Reviews

“The Built Moment” by Lavinia Greenlaw

Lavinia Greenlaw’s most recent poetry collection, The Built Moment is split into two sections, the first of which explores her father’s journey with dementia. The poems included are, in my opinion, some of the finest and most memorable writing about dementia I’ve come across whilst reading extensively on the subject. I’ve repeatedly found that poetry, with its use of white space, metaphor and resonant language provides a good vehicle through which to express some of the more difficult to quantify aspects of dementia. Greenlaw’s writing blew me away. 

There’s a warmth to these poems which reveals the relationship between the poet and her father and this often translates into a kind of desperation where the poet admits her own inability to help or arrest the progress of the illness, “I tell him I am saving him as quickly as I can.” There are even moments of genuine humour. I particularly enjoyed “The Finishing Line” where the poet’s brother, sitting at his father’s bedside, shares an anecdote about running a race dressed as a gorilla. It reminded me of the muddle and mixed emotions of tending to a much-loved family member’s illness where all the feelings sit close to the surface: sorrow, grief, and also joy. 

However, the thing I found most moving about The Built Moment was Greenlaw’s ability to pin down in words, the experiential side of dementia both from her own and her father’s perspective. It’s notoriously difficult -I know, I’ve tried- to write about an experience as strange as dementia when it isn’t something you’ve been through yourself in your own mind and body. Greenlaw uses evasive, slippery, meandering phrases and words to effectively convey how it must feel to be present and also becoming absent at the same time. “My father has lost his way out of the present./ Something is stopping him leaving, nothing becomes/ the immediate past.” One poem is called “My father has no shadow” and another, “While he can still speak,” in which he talks to his hands and legs as he gets dressed, suggesting he now sits at some distance from his own self. 

It’s the use of language which has had me returning to this collection repeatedly over the last year or so. Greenlaw more than most writers I’ve come across is using words to say the unsayable. She does so with a masterful lightness of touch.

The Built Moment was published by Faber & Faber in 2019

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Book Reviews

“When the Music Stops” by Joe Heap

When the Music Stops is a perfectly pleasant if somewhat predictable wee novel. We meet Ella at seven different points in her life, from a childhood in working class Glasgow, through WW2 to the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll in 60s era London and a, (slightly baffling), late career move to nursing. Throughout her turbulent life three things about Ella remain constant: her love of music, particularly the guitar, her complicated love affair with Robert and the fact that people seem to die around her with worrying frequency. I’m not going to say too much about the premise of this novel. It’s not the kind of book I would usually read. I found it quite contrived and a little thin, but I can also see why readers might enjoy it as a piece of escapism. 

Each of the seven chapters from Ella’s life are framed by short sections from her final days as an elderly women. Ella is living with dementia. We know this because on several occasions she tells us she’s living with dementia. She is eighty seven years old and trapped on a boat lost at sea with her infant grandson. The incidents which led up to this scenario are never quite explained but an elderly woman with dementia, adrift at sea acts as a handy plot device through which the author draws all the various themes at play in Ella’s life together. One by one seven dead people join Ella on the boat offering her advice and practical assistance in helping her to get the baby to safety. It’s made quite clear that these people are all figments of her imagination and yet the reality is she is still able to hoist a main sail, lower lifeboats, find and fire flare guns and all sorts of things which I found completely implausible given the fact that great pains are taken to remind us just how much her memory and capability have been diminished.

I’ve raised the question of dementia as a plot device a number of times in these book reviews. I completely understand that the nature of fiction means that characters often exist primarily to serve the story’s plot. However, I do think that when it comes to using a character with dementia to advance a plot or create dramatic tension, the writer should endeavour to ensure the depiction is well-researched, fully-formed and accurate. I didn’t find the character of Ella as depicted in the “dementia” sections of this novel at all believable. She is confused, forgetful and frail when it suits the plot and at other times uncharacteristically competent. When the Music Stops is a light, fun read and as such is quite enjoyable but I don’t think it stands up as a dementia narrative.

When the Music Stops was published by Harper Collins in 2020 

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“Happiness” by Aminatta Forna

Happiness is definitely a London novel. The city is as much a character in the book as the two main protagonists around whom the plot resolves. Attila is a recently widowed, Ghanaian psychiatrist, visiting London to present a paper about trauma at an academic conference. Jean is a recently divorced American who is spending some time in London whilst conducting an extended study into urban foxes. The two, quite literally, bump into each other whilst crossing Waterloo Bridge and strike up a friendship which eventually becomes a relationship. As the novel progresses Jean helps Atilla search for his niece’s missing son, mobilising the network of volunteer fox-spotters she’s developed across inner city London. The people who populate this novel, like the foxes Jean tracks and the traumatised individuals Atilla has worked with in the wake of various conflicts, exist on the margins of society and yet are very much interdependent and reliant upon each other for survival. Forna is asking her readers to consider questions around co-existence and community.

Whilst in London Atilla also takes every opportunity to visit his former lover and lifelong research partner, Rosie who is living in a residential care facility. Rosie has developed early onset dementia and is increasingly incapable of recognising Atilla when he visits though she retains some motor memory of their physicality. Atilla is determined to find better care arrangements for Rosie. He’s concerned that the nursing home staff aren’t being as vigilant with her care as they could be. In Atilla’s absence, Emmanuel -the carer whom Rosie had been particularly close to- has been fired and she’s been unable to bond with anyone else. Atilla’s particularly concerned about Rosie’s loss of appetite and disinterest. She isn’t receiving much stimuli or attention in the home. He conspires to set her up in her own apartment where he will pay Emmanuel to be a live-in carer. This plan never comes to fruition as Rosie’s condition deteriorates quickly and she eventually dies. Forna’s depiction of dementia only takes up a small amount of the novel but it’s significant for its portrayal of how care staff are treated and the pressures they face within a residential care setting. On the whole it’s an accurate depiction of dementia : Rosie exhibits ongoing confusion, an inability to tend to her own physical needs and, by the novel’s conclusion has become occasionally violent. Forna intersperses these darker snapshots of the dementia experience with moments of genuine fondness and even levity between Atilla, Rosie and Emmanuel.

I thoroughly enjoyed Happiness. The metaphor of the fox community which runs throughout the novel exists as a perfectly drawn exploration of interdependence between all the living beings who call London home. These complex ideas of community, connection and dependence also exist in the care setting which Forna gives us a glimpse into

Happiness was published by Bloomsbury in 2018 

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“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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“Three Things About Elsie” by Joanna Cannon

Joanna Cannon’s second novel Three Things About Elsie is set in a home for the elderly. The book takes place across a single evening just after 84 year old Florence has taken a tumble. For the duration of the novel, she’s lying on the floor of her flat waiting to see if anyone’s going to come and offer her help. As her mind skips backwards and forwards between her early life and the more recent events which have brought her to this place, the reader goes on a journey with Florence, piecing together a very old mystery. Florence is clearly living with dementia. She’s frequently confused and often forgetful. There’s a wonderful scene where a cleaner opens her kitchen cupboard to reveal she’s been inadvertently stockpiling Battenberg cake.

Florence is troubled by the sudden appearance of a new resident in the old people’s home. Though this man claims to be someone else, she’s absolutely convinced he’s a man she knew when she was a girl. A man she’s incredibly afraid of. A man whom she thought died fifty years ago. Florence begins her own investigation though it’s increasingly hard for her to keep track of what’s true and what’s not. She’s ably assisted by her friends Jack and Elsie though by the novel’s conclusion we realise Elsie is not exactly what she seems. None of the staff in the older people’s home take Florence’s concerns seriously. She’s frequently dismissed, often ignored and lives in constant fear of being sent to live in a specialist dementia care facility. 

Three Things About Elsie is very similar to Elizabeth is Missing in tone, theme and approach. It’s part of the increasingly large canon of fiction using dementia as a trope within crime fiction and thrillers. It’s a pleasant enough read if somewhat unsurprising. You’ll spot the big twist coming from quite early on. At times it feels like the symptoms of Florence’s dementia fit all too neatly around the plot. She’s confused when the plot requires a little ambiguity and at other times crystal clear and more insightful than many of the other characters. Without giving away too many spoilers I think Cannon effectively handles the conceit of having Florence imagine people who aren’t really there. The reader gets to see both sides of the conversation. The other characters only hear what Florence says. I also enjoyed the aspects dealing with how the care staff perceived their roles and felt the ongoing issue of older people being dismissed and infantilised was handled very well in this novel. It’s not the best dementia narrative I’ve ever read but it is an enjoyable read and you’ll not regret spending time with the characters.

Three Things About Elsie was published by Borough Press in 2018 

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“May” by Naomi Kruger

Naomi Kruger’s beautifully written debut novel May is a story about how we remember the past, what we choose to hold on to and what must be let go. It centres around May, an elderly women living with dementia in a residential care facility. The novel is structured around a single day in May’s life. May’s own voice is the leitmotif running throughout the novel. After each chapter we hear fragmented snippets of her thoughts which allow us an insight into the confusion and cacophony of different memories and ideas all competing for May’s attention.

The chapters of the novel are narrated by a handful of different people who’ve had an impact on May. We hear from her daughter, Karen, her grandson, Alex, May’s husband, Arthur and Sana, the young female carer who’s grown close to her in the nursing home. Each of them gives us a little more understanding of May’s story and helps us piece together both who she was and who she now is. Kruger also slowly reveals a decades old mystery which May has become more and more obsessed with since her move into the nursing home. The multiple narrative voices work well here. They’re each strong and developed enough to feel like complete stories in their own right. Though they patch together May’s personal story, they also show how each of the characters has been influenced and impacted by their relationship with her. I particularly appreciated this. Often in dementia narratives, it falls to secondary characters to shape and establish the character living with dementia. Here the secondary characters have been just as impacted by encountering May as she is shaped by their testimonies.

May is an exquisitely written novel. The prose is clean but warm. It doesn’t sentimentalize the family’s relationship with May or approach her illness too emotionally. However, the fondness is apparent, particularly in her grandson’s and Sana’s narratives. I loved the humour Kruger brought to the scenes which showcase interactions with the residents of the nursing home. May is also notable for its exploration of the fractured thought processes of someone living with advanced dementia. We are given multiple opportunities to see how May’s thoughts have become confused and distorted. Kruger does a stellar job in translating this confusion into words. 

May was published by Seren Books in 2018 

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“Grandpa’s Great Escape” by David Walliams

I don’t make a habit of criticising other author’s work. I know how difficult it is to write a novel. I know that the beauty of a book is often in the eye of the beholder and everyone has different tastes. What gives me the right to make a value judgment about a novel? However, every so often, a book comes along which leaves me so riled up I’m afraid I can’t keep from being critical. 

I’ve never read any of David Walliam’s kids’ books before. I knew they were incredibly popular – NUMBER ONE bestsellers, according to the cover- and I also knew many of my friends and colleagues in the kids’ book world had reservations about both Walliam’s work and also the increasing popularity of children’s books written by celebrity authors. I’m not going to wade into that argument, but I do think they are voicing legitimate concerns and, if Grandpa’s Great Escape is similar to the rest of Walliams’ work I’d have to say I have huge issues with his lazy and borderline misogynistic portrayal of women, his lazy, cliched, offensive depictions of BAME characters and the slightly snide and sneery way he writes about working class people. Putting these reservations aside for the moment, however, I will attempt to focus on Walliams’ exploration of dementia in this novel.

Dementia is not mentioned by name in Grandpa’s Great Escape but as the novel begins with the line “one day Grandpa began to forget things,” and Walliams goes on to outline how he’s taken to wandering off at night, confusing the past with the present and does not recognise close family members, it’s fair to say Grandpa has developed dementia. The novel’s plot outlines his adventures with his grandson Jack. Swept up in an extended delusion that he’s still living in the days of WW2 when he served his country as a fighter pilot, Grandpa runs away from home, hides out in a spitfire in the Imperial War Museum, is incarcerated in an old people’s home which he mistakes for a Prisoner of War camp, leads a mass break out from the home and eventually steals a spitfire from the Imperial War Museum which he flies away in. The plot is quite frankly absurd, but it is a children’s book and I’m all for wild flights of fancy in literature aimed at both children and adults. The problem here is the tone. Most of the outlandish events are written with such flippancy that the suspension of disbelief disintegrates instantly. Walliams has often been accused of being diet-Dahl but he lacks Dahl’s ability to believe his own magic. The made up stuff feels made up and I doubt it would make it past the discerning imagination of most eight year olds. It is badly written nonsense.

I’d be annoyed if this was all Walliams was offering his readers, but I think Grandpa’s Great Escape is so much worse than a poorly written piece of children’s literature. It’s attempting to address an important issue; presenting a character with dementia to countless young readers who might well have a grandparent or loved one living with the illness. As such, it’s unforgivable. Grandpa’s dementia is like no dementia I’ve ever encountered in almost fifteen years of working in this area. He can’t remember his family, confuses times and dates, forgets things and yet manages to mastermind elaborate escape plans, fly a spitfire plane, enter into complicated conversations and at all times remain fastidiously and neatly dressed in full army regalia. It’s quite clear from this portrayal that Walliams has done no research at all into how dementia would actually impact an elderly man or what effect the condition might have on his young grandson. Furthermore, the depiction of the residential care facility Grandpa’s moved into is terrifying. He’s drugged, physically abused by carers and isolated from his family. If I were reading this novel, as a young person whose grandpa had dementia, I’d be both terrified by the possibility he might be incarcerated in a Colditz-style care home and also full of the false hope that he might make a miraculous recovery from his illness. 

At best this book is badly written. At worst it’s downright harmful and instils a false narrative about dementia. I wish all those children, (or perhaps parents), who’ve made it a NUMBER ONE bestseller had instead picked up one of the amazing books for kids I’ve previously highlighted on the blog. 

Grandpa’s Great Escape was published by Harper Collins in 2015 

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“Ghosts” by Dolly Alderton

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 

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“The Granny Project” by Anne Fine

The Granny Project is a short YA novel written by Carnegie Medal winning writer Anne Fine and first published in 1983. It later found a place on the school curriculum and was adapted into a popular play. It opens with the mother and father of the family announcing the intention to put the children’s beloved grandmother into a nursing home.

“Are you two thinking of putting Granny into a home?”

“Thinking is finished,” Natasha told him. “It is decided.”

The four children -Ivan, Sophie, Tanya and Nicholas- subsequently hatch a cunning plan, (the Granny Project of the title). They will gather data which paints their parents attempts at caring for Granny, who is living with Dementia, in a very negative light. If Henry and Natasha don’t back down and allow Granny to stay in the house, they will hand this report in as a Social Sciences project, mortifying their parents. It’s an effective means of blackmail and eventually Henry and Natasha agree that Granny can stay. 

However, they do not fill their children in on the conditions associated with their acquiescence until the Granny Project has been destroyed. As soon as the written evidence is burnt, they inform the children that they are now solely responsible for their grandmother’s care. The children soon learn exactly how much work goes into caring for an elderly person living with Dementia, though I have to say, they -especially Ivan- make a valiant effort at giving the old lady the respect and attention she deserves. Just at the point when the situation is once again becoming intolerable, Granny sadly develops pneumonia and passes away. Towards the end of the novel, the older children reflect on the two forms of care their granny experienced at the end of her life. 

“Ivan, if Granny hadn’t died, and we could start again, would you still vote for keeping her at home?”

“Yes,” Ivan said.

“Just the same?”

“No, not just the same. Not with the system where they did all the work, and hated it. Or with the one where I did.”

It’s these insights into caring from the child’s perspective which make The Granny Project such an interesting read. In taking on the full burden of their grandmother’s care, the children come to understand how much pressure their parents have been under, yet also develop an even closer bond with the old lady and feel more inclined to ensure she stays at home. There’s not a huge amount of fresh insight into what it’s like to live with Dementia here; Granny’s condition isn’t even given an official name. The emphasis is more on the carers perspective and particularly how children will react to seeing someone they love begin to become confused. 

This is an often times hilarious, sharply written analysis of what it takes to holistically care for a loved one at home. It explores the complexities of family dynamics, what it feels like to be a child carer, (including the practical sacrifices and lifestyle changes Ivan is forced to make) and also how children process grief and loss. At times it feels a little dated, the cultural references are firmly rooted in the eighties and some of the attitudes feel a little out of whack with contemporary thinking but it’s still well worth reading today. 

The Granny Project was published by Methuen Children’s Books in 1983 

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“Take Care, Son – The Story of My Dad and His Dementia” by Tony Husband

Cartoonist Tony Husband turns his attention to a subject very close to home in this slight, but charming book which chronicles the final years of his father, Ron. We follow Ron’s journey from a Dementia diagnosis right through to his death. Told from both the perspective of Tony and his father, the story reveals the close relationship between the two and the way this relationship is significantly impacted as Ron’s Dementia takes over his life. At first Ron is able to continue living with a degree of independence. The opening sections of the book allow the reader to find out a little more about his lifestyle, family and history. He seems like a larger than life sort of man. As the story progresses Ron becomes more and more confused about his own present condition and eventually moves from the family home into a residential care facility. 

The small snippets of first person narrative and the illustrations which accompany each page give the reader a real insight into the practicalities of Ron’s decline. He laments the loss of his independence when his car is taken away and is heartbroken to discover his dog, Lossie won’t be able to stay with him in the nursing home. However, Husband is quick to point out that the move into residential care hasn’t been an entirely negative experience for his father. Ron enjoys the company of his fellow residents, the entertainment that’s laid on for them and even manages to start a new relationship with a fellow resident. He’s also delighted to discover that Lossie is welcome to come and visit. The dog proves incredibly popular with his new friends. 

Take Care, Son doesn’t go into an awful lot of depth when it comes to exploring the Dementia experience. But what Husband records is very familiar and resonates particularly strongly because each little thought and musing is accompanied by a gorgeous illustration which adds a lot to the telling of a familiar story. I also felt the sections offering the reader a glimpse into Ron’s personal thought life were really clear, insightful and loaded with meaning.

“My memories were confused, jumbled… nothing made sense, the world I knew was disappearing, it didn’t make sense and I presume I didn’t either.”

However, my favourite thing about this short book was the tone in which Husband tells his father’s story. It reads like a warm and deeply respectful conversation between a father and son who really love and care for each other. There’s so much respect and dignity implied within this story that even, in the final few pages when Ron talks honestly about facing death and Tony confronts the loss of his father, the narrative felt sad, but not unbearably so. This is a testament to a life both well lived and concluded with dignity. The whole book is shot through with little nuggets of hope and joy. 

Take Care, Son was published by Robinson in 2014