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Book Reviews

“Ten Days” by Austin Duffy

Irish novelist, Austin Duffy’s second novel, Ten Days is mostly set in New York. Photographer, Wolf is visiting the city with his daughter Ruth so she can take part in her late mother’s family’s celebration of the ten High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The visit will culminate in a ceremony to scatter Miriam’s ashes over the Hudson River. Miriam has recently passed away after a short battle with cancer. Though, at the time, separated from Wolf, she’d asked her husband to return to the family home so they could be together for the last few weeks. She’s also left him strict instructions concerning both her funeral arrangements and plans for Ruth to be part of the extended family’s holiday celebrations in New York. Wolf is neither Jewish nor in the family’s good books. They rightly judge him for his treatment of Miriam. He feels excluded from the celebrations and yet continues to persevere with his in-laws. It’s essential that his daughter is accepted and feels at home within the family.

Wolf has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Though he doesn’t tell his wife or daughter, he’s made an elaborate plan to provide for Ruth when he can no longer look after her. He’s booked one way tickets from London for both of them. The novel implies that Wolf intends to kill himself in America, whilst he’s arranged for Ruth to move in with her Jewish in-laws in New York. I’ll not give any spoilers away but it’s enough to say his plan doesn’t work out quite as he’d intended. The novel ends a little differently from how I’d expected and ultimately I was grateful for this.

I loved Ten Days. I loved the writing. It’s sharp, well-crafted and pacey. It’s very much a city novel and there’s a definite urban tightness to the way it’s written. I loved the depictions of Jewish culture and the way they’re seamlessly woven through the book. I also loved the occasional dips into the world of artists and musicians -some real, some fabricated- which Wolf has built his career around.

Duffy’s penned a great depiction of strained relationships, put under further pressure by the increasing confusion Wolf’s experiencing. He’s not particularly close to his daughter. He’s been ostracised by his in-laws. And yet he’s trying his best to prepare for their future together, even as he begins to forget who they are. There’s a woozy quality to the way Duffy writes dementia. Both time and spatial awareness come in and out of focus, sometimes repeating in a loop. I found this a very effective mode of capturing the dementia experience of a man who’s desperately trying to hold on to his sense of reality. It’s also a novel which explores power and ego. Wolf is a man who’s been used to riding roughshod over others’ feelings; the central section of the novel, where he discovers his mother’s Alzheimer’s, then coldly and pragmatically dispatches her to a nursing home, is quite a hard read. Now, he’s increasingly dependent on other people, some of whom he’s treated poorly in the past. This wasn’t the dementia narrative I was expecting to read. I enjoyed it all the more for that.

Ten days was published by Granta in 2021 

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Book Reviews

“There Were No Windows” by Norah Hoult

The acclaimed Irish novelist, Norah Hoult wrote There Were No Windows during the Second World War when she was living in Bayswater, London close to the ageing writer, Violet Hunt. Hoult based her novel’s protagonist, Claire Temple very closely on Violet Hunt: garnering some criticism for how recognisable Hunt was in Temple’s character. The portrait is far from flattering. Claire Temple is a once popular society lady and reasonably successful writer who is now losing her memory. She is paranoid, delusional, frequently confused and often unpleasant to the cook, Kathleen and paid companion, Miss Jones who are now her only company. Outside the house, London is in the grip of the Blitz, with daily air raids, rationing and black out restrictions in place. Claire regularly forgets the War is going on as she drifts between lamenting her loneliness and fantasising about her former high life. Hoult has managed to create an incredibly believable archetypal spinster, (in the vein of Brian Moore’s Judith Hearne). She is not nice enough to evoke the reader’s sympathy but is pathetic enough to seem pitiful. 

The novel was first published in 1944 and is incredibly interesting because, though it doesn’t name Claire’s condition as dementia, it is one of the earliest extended explorations of the illness I’ve managed to come across in fiction. Different characters explain Claire’s behaviour using different terms. She is senile. She is doting. She is frequently called mental. This is hardly surprising. The modern usage of the word dementia is a relatively recent development. Her symptoms suggest early stage dementia. Hoult uses her character’s dialogue and internal thought process to give us a really intriguing insight into how Claire herself feels about her condition. She wanders off in her slippers and suffers from terrible insomnia. She is paranoid that the servants are plotting together and stealing from her. She has almost no short term memory and frequently repeats herself. She is, by the close of the novel, becoming aggressive and increasingly violent. None of the other characters, including the doctor, seem to know quite what to do with her.

As a period piece, There Were No Windows is incredibly useful and enlightening. It gave me a wonderful insight into how dementia was viewed back in the war years. Claire is fortunate enough to have a house and financial resources to utilise. It is likely that without finances, she would have been quickly institutionalised. And yet, her experience is far from pleasant. She has lost autonomy over her body, her finances and her creativity. She is constantly lonely, and particularly misses the intellectual company she was used to. Her staff are rude and dismissive. They don’t attempt to understand her condition. They fluctuate between bullying and infantilising Claire. There were so many moments in this novel when I wished to sit them down and explain why Claire’s dementia was causing her to act out of character. 

There Were No Windows is a stunningly written novel -perhaps even one of Hoult’s best- and I thoroughly enjoyed it as both a piece of fiction and an incredibly believable dementia narrative. There’s still so much more education about dementia which needs to take place but I’m so glad people are no longer quite so ignorant about the illness. Poor Claire’s treatment is horrific and dehumanising. I’m thankful this is no longer the norm.

There Were No Windows was published by Readers Union in 1946

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Book Reviews

“Flight” by Oona Frawley

Irish novelist, Oona Frawley’s debut novel Flight is a beautifully observed portrait of four lives intersecting. It’s set just outside Dublin in 2004 as a referendum on citizenship approaches. Sandrine is a pregnant Zimbabwean women who has left her husband and son at home seeking to better herself and ultimately gain citizenship for them all in Ireland. Sandrine finds herself working as a live-in carer for Tom and Claire, a rich retired couple who have lived in Ireland, America and Vietnam, following Tom’s career as a spice importer. Tom is now living with advanced dementia and their daughter Elizabeth hires Sandrine to look after him and also keep an eye on Claire, who is increasingly confused herself. Tom is soon moved to a residential care facility and passes away soon after. Within a few month’s Claire’s conditioned deteriorates in a similar way and she too passes away in a nursing home.

I really enjoyed reading Flight. The prose is so carefully crafted and evocative. As the perspective moves between the protagonists it’s really easy to imagine the same situation as slightly different when seen through their eyes. It’s very much a novel concerned with the idea of memory. Whilst Elizabeth struggles with how she was brought up, flitting between various countries and various homes, Claire longs for Vietnam and the lifestyle of her younger days. As her memories merge and become confused, her senses frequently take her back to Vietnam. Sandrine is also constantly interrogating her understanding of the past and what it means to belong to a place. Thrown together, the big quiet house the three women inhabit, comes to feel like a kind of dream scape where time and reality are both confused. There’s also a sense that the women are struggling to connect. They all seem to be lonely, though they’re constantly together. They don’t seem to know how to communicate with each other. It’s only when Sandrine has her baby that she and Elizabeth finally connect, bonding as equals over the baby and talking honestly about their lives.

As a dementia narrative, Flight is intriguing. There are very few of the common tropes played upon here. Neither Tom nor Claire is prone to wandering. They don’t seem to forget each other or confuse their daughter for someone else. Their journey with dementia is more of a kind of gentle erasure. They are less and less present as the novel progresses. Both pass away calmly in their sleep as if succumbing to the last stage of what’s been a kind of extended dream.

Flight was published by Tramp Press in 2014 

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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

“The Summer of Lily and Esme” by John Quinn

It’s the summer between Primary and Secondary School and everything’s changing for Alan. His parents have moved the family out of Dublin and bought an old house in a village in the country. At first Alan thinks he’ll be isolated and lonely with no one around to play with. However, within days of the move he’s stumbled upon the two old ladies who live in the cottage next door. Lily and Esme are twins. Although they’re extremely elderly now, they still believe themselves to be little girls and instantly mistake Alan for a young boy they used to play with, who died tragically on the day of their tenth birthday party. With the help of his new friend Lisa and a bunch of friendly locals, Alan works hard to piece together the mystery of what happened, the summer Albert died. There is talk of ghosts, a lot of laughter and a clandestine adventure to the local circus. Thanks to Alan’s efforts, Lily and Esme have the best summer of their lives and Alan himself learns a lot about friendship and the importance of community.

This is a gorgeous novel aimed at upper Primary school aged children. It never mentions the word Dementia though it’s clear from the outset that both the twins are living with the condition. They’re confused and frequently forgetful. They muddle their memories up with the present and are cared for by a stern live-in carer whom they’ve nicknamed Badger. Quinn does a fantastic job of capturing what their condition seems like to a young boy and, through Alan’s responses, painting a really compelling picture of what it looks like to befriend and accept a person living with Dementia and actually benefit from this relationship. A few of the references are a little dated. The Summer of Lily and Esme was clearly written in a pre-Internet age and yet this doesn’t stop it from being utterly charming and compelling. It’s a treat to read such a rich Dementia narrative set right here in Ireland. This is a very special book.

The Summer of Lily and Esme was published by Poolbeg Press in 1991 

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Book Reviews

“Toffee” by Sarah Crossan

In this stunning verse novel from Carnegie Medal winning YA author Sarah Crossan we meet Alison, a young woman on the run from a difficult situation at home. She ends up in a bleak seaside town. Alone, and with nowhere else to sleep, she hides out in the shed of an abandoned house. It soon transpires the house isn’t empty. An elderly woman named Marla lives there. Dementia has left Marla confused and mistaking Alison for an old friend called Toffee. She invites the young woman to move in with her. At first Alison is quite blatantly taking advantage of Marla but soon she begins to care for her. What transpires is a strange but intriguing friendship where the women become increasingly dependent on each other for company and companionship. The novel is perhaps, best summed up by the short four sentence description on the back cover.

“I am not who I say I am. Marla isn’t who she thinks she is. I am a girl trying to forget. Marla is a women trying to remember.”

Despite their differences Marla and Alison have much in common. They manage to become a kind of support network for each other as Marla tries to make sense of her past and the fractured network of her memories while Alison attempts to brave the future and the big changes she’s going to have to make.

Essentially this is Alison’s story. It’s told in the first person from her perspective but includes descriptions and analysis of Marla, snippets of her dialogue and even secondary sources like text messages. Through Alison’s eyes we are given a wonderful picture of an older woman, living alone with Dementia who is anxious to maintain her independence and determined to continue being fully herself. Marla is not the usual dottery old lady, depicted in much of Dementia fiction. She is feisty, funny and desperately quirky; as annoying as she is likable. In Marla, Crossan has created a unique and incredibly appealing character. She’s made it ok to find aspects of Dementia truly hilarious.

“I can’t get my feckin’ tights on, Marla shouts

from the bedroom next to mine.

My arse has expanded.”

Perhaps the most unique feature of the novel is its style. Crossan has written the entire story in verse. It reads like a novel, though looks like a poetry collection on the page. All the white space around the words serve as a constant reminder of the fact that because of Dementia there is often as much said, or implied in the silences, as there is when Marla speaks. This sense of erasure and retaining what’s essential about who a person is and was, is mirrored in Alison’s story and eluded to in Crossan’s beautiful words.

“No goodbye is forever

unless you can

erase everything you ever knew about a person

and everything you once felt.”

Toffee is a truly beautiful novel. It’s fractured language and lyrical, mesmerising tone is perfect for exploring the theme of Dementia. As I read, I felt Crossan was trying to pin down something fleeting and elusive with her sentences. She does an amazing job of capturing what it’s like for a teenager to do life with someone who’s living with Dementia. I’d recommend this as an essential read for young adults and actual adults alike.

Toffee was published by Bloomsbury in 2019

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Book Reviews

“Malcolm Orange Disappears” by Jan Carson

Summarising a book you’ve written yourself is a difficult and quite disconcerting thing to do. Malcolm Orange Disappears was my first published novel and, whilst I’m still quite fond of it and certain characters who appear within its pages, six books later, I can definitely see where it could be improved. The story focuses upon eleven year old Malcolm Orange, whose father has abandoned the family in Portland, Oregon. As he attempts to process this troubling situation Malcolm begins to notice he is, quite literally, disappearing. Malcolm’s mother has found a job as an orderly in a retirement village which comes with accommodation. As Malcolm settles into his new home he begins to befriend the elderly residents and together they go on a quest to stop him from disappearing.

Malcolm Orange is a magical realist text which uses metaphor and allegory to explore the various ways the older people in the retirement village feel as if they too are beginning to disappear. The loss of memory is explored at length. Many of the residents are living with Dementia and can’t remember important parts of their own stories. Malcolm and his friend Soren James Blue help the residents to form a kind of support group in order to capture one aspect of their history before it disappears.

“The People’s Committee for Remembering Songs existed solely for the purpose of remembering songs.” It meets several times a week and allows the residents to collectively recall the important songs which have shaped their identities. This section of the novel takes an imaginative look at how community and creative group exercises can, at best, help to slow the advance of Dementia and also help participants to find a sense of support and solidarity in being with others who are going through a similar experience. There is a particularly poignant scene towards the end of the novel where the residents all sing together in unison and experience a kind of miraculous release which doesn’t remove them from the realities of the illness but allows them to feel free and powerful as autonomous individuals. Much of this section was inspired by my own experience of volunteering with an Alzheimer’s Society, Singing for the Brain group.

“Emboldened by the miracles unfolding in every corner of the Treatment Room, the People’s Committee for Remembering Songs whooped and hollered, raising their wrinkled chins and hands in anticipation of further healing. The noise was deafening.”

As mentioned above Malcolm Orange is far from a perfect novel but it does give some interesting insight into how ageing, and in particular Dementia, is viewed from a child’s perspective. It explores the use of Dementia as a literary device for introducing fantastical elements into a story and also touches upon issues of sexuality, disability and autonomy in regards to those living with Dementia within a residential care environment. I hope it also advocates for the power of story in attesting to who a person living with Dementia once was and continues to be. 

Malcolm Orange Disappears was published by Liberties Press in 2014 

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“The Heart of Everything” by Henrietta McKervey

Irish novelist, Henrietta McKervey’s debut novel begins and ends with an insight into the life and experience of Mags Jensen, an older woman, living alone in a small Irish town, who’s recently been given a Dementia diagnosis. Mags leaves her home one morning to run some errands in town and never comes back. The major part of this beautifully written novel focuses upon her three grown-up children as they try to find their mother, come to terms with her Dementia and deal with the family’s troubled past. It’s testament to McKervey’s writing ability that, though a lot happens and is revealed in this novel, it still feels like a well-developed character study of a family slowly falling apart.

This is the first novel I’ve come across which deals in depth with the theme of people living with Dementia wandering away from home. It’s a common enough experience amongst people living with Dementia and their carers and McKervey handles it with tact and honesty, using the sections focused upon Mags’ experience to give us an insight into her confusion and the way she’s come to distrust her own thoughts. She keeps a notebook full of To Do lists though she regularly forgets what her own notes mean. It’s quite easy to understand how Mags might have become lost, when we try to track her muddled train of thoughts.

It’s equally easy to empathise with the family’s response. They’re anxious about their missing mother. They blame themselves to different degrees: perhaps they’ve not been attentive enough, perhaps they’ve underestimated the progress of her illness. As panic sets in and their efforts to track down Mags using posters, appeals and search parties lead to a series of dead ends, they begin to blame each other. Under pressure, past anxieties and issues bubble to the surface and McKervey expertly reveals how a crisis like Mags’ disappearance can reveal both the worst and the best in families and communities.

Mags’ Dementia and subsequent disappearance forms the catalyst for The Heart of Everything, however, the story, as it unfolds is focused upon her three children and the complicated ways their family is both bonded together and falling apart. It’s a very assured novel for a debut, with so much grounded, believable detail about family dynamics and the way individual family members will deal with something like Dementia in their own, very individual ways. It’s also refreshing to read a Dementia narrative very grounded within the familiar setting of contemporary Ireland. The references and cultural reactions are spot on and really helped to engage me in the story. Another recommended read.

The Heart of Everything was published by Hachette in 2016