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Book Reviews

“A Chronicle of Forgetting” by Sebastijan Pregelj

Translated from the Slovene by Rawley Grau

Slovene novelist, Sebastijan Pregelj’s slender novel, A Chronicle of Forgetting is a beautifully written book, expertly translated by Rawley Grau. The prose is clean and elegant, allowing Pregelj to experiment with hidden meanings and images inherent within the text. The novel is set in a Slovene nursing home and focuses upon a small number of residents and staff members who we see through the eyes of one elderly male resident. It is divided up into four sections, including an opening section narrated by the main protagonist at his own funeral and a final section narrated by an unnamed carer who might be representative of the man’s inner life. The novel closes with this haunting statement, delivered over the man’s deathbed. 

“You are what has happened and what is yet to come. 

You are life as it is.”

Perhaps these words can be read as a kind of key which unlocks the entire novel. This is a book where time itself is extremely fluid. As the narrator’s Dementia develops, he slips backwards and forwards in his reminiscences. His past life and regrets blur with the present as he attempts to make amends for the mistakes he’s made. At times it’s unclear whether these grand gestures have actually been made or are simply plans the man is making for a future he might not live to see. He enjoys a romance with an elderly female resident though it’s also unclear if this only takes place inside his head. As the novel progresses, he -and by proxy the readers he speaks to- becomes increasingly confused between reality and imagination. There are several occasions within the novel where he might be experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations, common to certain types of Dementia, or he might be narrating a real experience. I enjoyed the way Pregelj refuses to patronise his readers and leaves the interpretation up to them.

Some of the classic tropes of Dementia narratives set in care facilities are absent here. There’s very little evidence of residents being infantilised. In fact, the narrator goes out of his way to emphasise his independence and the good relationships he has with staff members. He does talk at length about the physical aspects of ageing and deterioration. He describes the effects old age has had on his body including weight loss and incontinency. I was also glad to see one of the first explorations of sex between older people living with Dementia I’ve come across during my reading. However, Pregelj avoids language loss as an associated issue. The narrative voice is strong and coherent throughout the text. 

As the title would suggest A Chronicle of Forgetting is primarily a book concerned with memory; how memory is lost, what we remember and how accurate our memories are. It’s a beautiful, meandering gentle read which left me more hopeful than most Dementia narratives do. There’s a real sense of urgency running through this narrative. The man is not naïve. He knows he’s losing his grasp on reality, but he chooses not to panic and to make the most of every minute he has left. 

“Forgetting will swallow up my memories, bit by bit, until eventually I forget who I am, where I came from and why I’m here. But before that happens, I hope that for a few moments I’ll be able to put the world around me out of my mind and, without fear, sail away to somewhere else.”

A Chronicle of Forgetting was published by the Slovene Writers’ Association in 2019 

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Book Reviews

“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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Book Reviews

“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 

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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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Book Reviews

“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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Book Reviews

“The Old King in His Exile” by Arno Geiger

Translated from the German by Stefan Tobler

I’m beginning to notice something of a trend in my reading. Writers who have a parent living with Dementia will often take the opportunity to write about the experience. Many of these books are much more interesting and, dare I say it, better written than the regular Dementia biographies. In The Old King in His Exile, Austrian novelist, Arno Geiger turns his attention to his father and charts the progress of his illness over several decades. The slow progression of the text was one of the main things I enjoyed about this book. Geiger has made a point of letting the story take its time. 

“With this book, I wanted to take my time. I saved up for six years. At the same time, I wanted to write it before my father died. I didn’t want to tell his story after his death. I wanted to write about a living person. I felt that my father, like everyone else, deserved to have an open-ended destiny.”

The book reads more like a novel than a regular biography. There are small snippets of conversation included, frequent trips back into the past as Geiger presents the reader with his father’s history and small vignettes of everyday life. It is beautifully written and meandering in tone. There’s a gentleness I loved about the way Geiger approaches his father’s illness. He gives the older man room to be what he needs to be. There’s no sense of rushing his story, no sense of trying to impose sense upon the narrative. This is not Dementia utilised as a plot device. This is carefully and respectfully bearing witness to the last few years of a loved one’s life. I particularly loved the image Geiger used to describe his father’s gentle decline.

I half-remembered a phrase about ending something in beauty. If my father carried on like this, then the same would be true for him as I had once read in a Thomas Hardy novel, which talked of an old man who approached death as a hyperbolic curve approaches a straight line – changing his direction so slowly that, in spite of the nearness, it was unclear that the two would ever meet.”

I know I will return to this text. It has offered me a blueprint for how to write about a person living with Dementia with dignity, respect and above all things, space. It seems almost wrong to have to point this out, but many Dementia memoirs are more focused upon the person recording the life, than the person whose story it actually is. The Old King in his Exile is definitely Geiger’s father’s story, yet in writing it with so much openness and genuine fondness, Geiger constantly reveals more and more about his own character.

The Old King in His Exile was published by And Other Stories in 2017 

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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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“Rain Birds” by Harriet McKnight

Australian writer, Harriet McKnight’s debut novel, Rain Birds is set in rural Australia, on the edge of the wild and beautiful Murrungowar National Park. McKnight has a wonderful ability to capture the natural world in her writing and I particularly enjoyed the way this novel interweaves the personal experience of how dementia impacts a couple’s relationship, with themes of global and environmental responsibility. It’s pretty obvious from the outset that McKnight knows and understands the world she is writing about.

Alan and Pina have spent thirty years living together in isolated Boney Point, when Alan begins to develop early-onset Alzheimer’s. Pina feels as if she’s losing contact with her partner as he starts to forget things, lose his language capability and disappear into his own head. Then the arrival of a flock of rare, black cockatoos offers them a means of connecting, both to each other and the moment they’re currently living through. Conservation biologist, Arianna, is also obsessed with the black cockatoos. She’s trying to encourage them back to their natural breeding site before the flock dies out. Pina wants the birds to stay in her backyard where Alan can get the comfort and benefit of seeing them every day. Both women bring their own agenda to the issue of the cockatoos. Neither is being deliberately selfish but there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to their problem. Either Alan will suffer or the birds will ultimately be put at risk. McKnight uses this small, and very localised dilemma, to highlight much bigger environmental issues. 

Rain Birds is essentially Pina’s story. She’s struggling to come to terms with Alan’s Alzheimer’s, (“I have to stop thinking of him as if he’s already dead,”) and fixates on the black cockatoos as a means of preserving some degree of connection with him. As the novel progresses, she becomes more and more irrational about the birds, losing perspective as she tries to hold on to the one aspect of her life with Alan which she can actually control. 

The novel includes some incredibly honest and very recognisable insights into what it’s like to live with a partner who’s developed Dementia,

“How she followed him around in circles, shutting drawers, finding his jacket in with the crockery, the milk left under the sink with the cleaning stuff, directing him to the bathroom when he couldn’t find it, the tantrums, the anger, the forgetting, always the forgetting. The way it could all turn a woman slowly insane.”

McKnight effectively uses the cockatoo situation as an extended metaphor for all Pina’s frustrations and disappointment. In the specific and personal she finds grounds to explore big universal themes of anger, control and loss. Rain Bird’s a wonderful novel, beautifully written and full of rich descriptions of the natural world. It’s one of the first accounts of Dementia and environmental issues I’ve come across. I sincerely hope to read more. 

Rain Birds was published by Black Inc in 2017 

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A Trilogy of Wonderful Grandpa-themed Picture Books

These three stunning picture books aimed at young readers provide ample opportunity to begin conversations with small children about how what it’s like to watch someone they love grow older. All three explore various forms of ageing, including forgetfulness and the loss of memory. Whilst they don’t explicitly mention Dementia, the implication is there, and the topic is covered in a range of really sensitive age-appropriate ways. The beautiful illustrations enhance the impact of these books and also offer different opportunities to ask questions and begin discussions with young readers, exploring their own experiences of ageing in a safe and enjoyable way.

Grandpa Green – Lane Smith

Grandpa Green is an amazing gardener. In this beautifully illustrated book, his great-grandson leads us around his garden which is populated by all sorts of amazing topiary sculptures: animals, people and even an enormous wedding cake. Grandpa Green is getting old and he sometimes struggles to remember all the amazing things that have happened to him. But it’s ok, because “the gardens remembers for him” and he has a fantastic great-grandson who likes nothing more than to tell Grandpa’s story using all his imaginatively-shaped plants.

Grandpa Green was published by Two Hoots in 2017

My Great Grandpa – Martin Waddell

With illustrations by Dom Mansell

Gran might say “it’s sad to be like Great Grandpa is now!” but his little great granddaughter knows it’s not. She takes her Great Grandpa out on a wonderful adventure around the village he lives in. Great Grandpa tells her all the history he can remember and when his memory runs out, she fills in the rest of the details. Together they make a fantastic team. She doesn’t feel at all sorry for her Great Grandpa though she can see he doesn’t have as much energy as he used to have and sometimes he seems a bit muddled. She’s sure, “Great Grandpa knows things that no one else knows. In his mind he goes places that no one else goes.”

My Great Grandpa was published by Walker Books in 1990

Granpa – John Burningham

A little girl and her grandfather share a very special relationship. Though Granpa’s not as strong as he used to be and sometimes he can’t go out to play, through gorgeous leading questions and beautifully illustrated pictures of the fantastical worlds he conjures up we can see his imagination’s still working well. Granpa might be exhibiting the signs of early Dementia or he might just be playing make believe with his little granddaughter. Burningham doesn’t feel the need to make this explicit and this decision serves the story well. Granpa is a subtle and very clever book which illustrates the way a child’s ability to enter into her grandfather’s confusion about reality could actually help her cope with his Dementia in a loving and imaginative way.

Granpa was published by Puffin Books in 1984

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Book Reviews

“The Father” by Florian Zeller

Translated from the French by Christopher Hampton

With a big screen adaptation forthcoming later in 2020/early 2021 I thought I’d revisit French novelist and playwright, Florian Zeller’s incredible play Le Père, (or in English, The Father). Zeller makes bold, creative decisions with this play which explores the Dementia experience of an older Frenchman named André. André becomes the lens through which we see the world. The characters, dialogue, time frame and set of the play are all deliberately ambiguous as Zeller attempts to capture the confusion of André’s experience on stage.

The play itself is set in what André takes to be his Parisian apartment, although it is also at times his daughter’s apartment. Zeller’s stage instructions convey the confused nature of this space.

“Simultaneously the same room and a different room. Some furniture has disappeared: as the scenes proceed, the set sheds certain element, until it becomes an empty, neutral space.”

Scenes repeat with slight variations, additions and subtractions to the dialogue. This makes it incredibly difficult to follow any linear time pattern through the play. The audience is catapulted into André’s world where time means very little anymore. The past is the present is the past and memories repeatedly come back to haunt him, whilst other details, like the death of his younger daughter, seem to be permanently misplaced. Most worryingly of all Zeller employs different actors to play André’s daughter and her partner so when he does not recognise Anne or Pierre, the audience understands his confusion because we do not recognise them either. These people might be speaking Anne and Pierre’s lines, but they no longer look anything like them.

The Father is a simple and yet hugely ambitious attempt at embodying the Dementia experience in a piece of art and allowing it to be accessible to the audience members as they watch the play. It incites a feeling of confusion, disorientation and frustration not unlike Dementia itself. However, it is also shot through with moments of heartfelt emotion and beautiful, poignant language such as the section towards the end of the play, when André, greatly diminished by his illness and the confusing experiences he’s been through, likens himself to an Autumnal tree.

“I feel as if… I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves, one after another.”

I’m so looking forward to seeing Florian Zeller’s own film adaptation of The Father later in the year and am confident that the all star cast including Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman and Rufus Sewell will do justice to this powerful play.

The Father was published by Faber and Faber in 2015.