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Book Reviews

“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

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Book Reviews

“We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves was one of the very first Dementia narratives I encountered and it remains one of the best examples of writing about Dementia I’ve come across in any novel. It is an epic saga, in the old-fashioned sense; a novel which follows an American couple, Eileen and Ed Leary from childhood, through courtship and marriage to the establishment of their own family. It’s very much a rags to riches, boy meets girl, American dream story and the plot arc is incredibly familiar until around half way through the book. In his early fifties, Ed’s behaviour starts to become increasingly erratic. Eileen is concerned about her husband and eventually convinces him to see a doctor. “If nothing’s wrong with him,” she tells her own doctor, “I’m going to divorce him. I can’t take it anymore.”

Eventually Ed is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. The news turns the Leary’s world upside down, but Eileen insists from the outset, “we are going to carry this with dignity and grace.” This is a novel about a family who stick together through good times and desperately difficult times. It’s also a novel about how a life change as radical and disruptive as a Dementia diagnosis can turn cosy notions of the American dream upside down. Eileen manages to get her husband included in a clinical drug trial and even fantasises that the drugs he’s given might return him to his old, ‘normal’ self. However, in reality, she knows it doesn’t work like this with Dementia,

“His real self wasn’t hiding in there waiting to be sprung for a day of freedom. This was his real self now.”

We Are Not Ourselves excels beyond other Dementia narratives in its handling of the specifics associated with an early onset diagnosis. Thomas explores family dynamics: Ed’s reluctance to tell his son, Connell about his illness and his fear that the condition might be hereditary. He takes a close look at the Leary’s marriage, as the role of provider quickly shifts. There’s also an incredible amount of realistic detail around the financial support available for people living with Dementia in the USA. At one point Eileen is encouraged to divorce her own husband as this would classify as eligible for financial assistance. The novel also refuses to shy away from the upsetting, and very realistic depiction, of a youngish man with Dementia attempting to retain his job, his status, salary and dignity for as long as he can, whilst the illness makes this more and more difficult to do. Thomas works in issues around class, finances and societal shame, raising big questions about where, if anywhere, Dementia fits into American society with its notions of personal and familial success.

There’s a section towards the end of this novel where Connell, as a young man, steps up to become one of his father’s carers and it remains the most straightforward but powerful piece of writing about Dementia I’ve ever read. This section stayed with me long after I’d finished the novel and still comes to mind from time to time. Thomas writes so well about the complex shift in relationship between parent and child as responsibility for physical and emotional support moves from the father to the son. There’s no excess of emotion or sentiment here, just beautiful, honest, matter-of-fact writing about how difficult it is to feed and change your own adult father, and also what a strange privilege this is.

At almost 600 pages, We Are Not Ourselves is a reasonably long read, but it’s the sort of novel which draws you in. Thomas introduces his readers to the Learys slowly, ushering us into their home, their family and, ultimately, their problems so that, by the final few chapters, we feel part of the family, fully able to empathise with their joys and their pains.

We Are Not Ourselves was published by Fourth Estate in 2015

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Book Reviews

“The Latecomer” by Dimitri Verlhurst

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

Meet Désiré Cordier, a very unusual kind of hero. Fed up with the drudgery of retired life, hen-pecked by a bossy wife and irritated by his extended family, retired librarian Désiré hatches a cunning plan. He will gradually feign the symptoms of Dementia until he lands himself a place in a retirement home and a much-needed dose of peace and quiet. All goes according to plan. Désiré is able to fake his way through the memory test his doctor sets him and soon finds himself a resident in Winterlight Home for the Elderly.

“On paper it seemed easy enough: I would more or less crumble away like one of those lonely bluffs you see in Westerns. Slowly, but inexorably, with something resembling grandeur, I would blur and gradually disappear in the mist I myself was discharging.”

However, his plan doesn’t live up to expectations. Constantly feigning Dementia isn’t an enjoyable way of living. He’s beset by daily indignities and frustrated at his own limitations. He’s also shocked to discover he’s not the first resident to have come up with a similar exit plan. Plus, the retirement home isn’t as safe as he’d hoped -he’s sharing his living quarters with a war criminal- and Rosa Rozendaal, his childhood crush is too advanced in her own Dementia to return his amorous advances. It isn’t long before Désiré begins to question the wisdom of what he’s done.

Ably translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, Verhulst’s short novel is a darkly comic exploration of life within a retirement home. It’s funny, honest, sometimes brutally so, and full of well-placed observations about the staff, the residents and the visitors. By crafting a protagonist who’s feigning Dementia Verhulst offers the readers a unique insight into how a person with Dementia is treated and perceived by the people around him. In the following section he describes his daughter’s final visit to Winterlight.

“She could no longer bear to visit someone who didn’t recognise her. The only man she was willing to recognise as her father had dissolved in the mists of his own memory. This was going to be her last trip to this den of misery, her final symbolic visit, to round it all off.”

In normal circumstances a person living with advanced Dementia might be incapable of articulating the experience with the insight and eloquence we get from Désiré. The first person narrative is incredibly affecting. By the time we get to the end of the novel and, like Désiré, realise his family and the people who care for him can no longer see him for the person he is, we understand his frustration and empathise with his lack of autonomy. The Latecomer is a clever novel which uses a bold plot device to place the reader firmly in the shoes of a person living with Dementia. As such, I think it’s a really useful read.

The Latecomer was published by Portobello Books in 2015 

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Book Reviews

“An Absent Mind” by Eric Rill

An Absent Mind is a slim novel set in contemporary Canada. It explores the impact of a Dementia diagnosis on a close family unit. The novel opens with the patriarch, Saul beginning to acknowledge his own mental confusion. It moves through his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the advent of the illness and subsequent decline, his move to a care facility and eventually, both his own death and that of his wife, Monique whom he actually outlives. The story is told from the perspective of five different characters, all of whom speak directly to the reader in first person monologues. We meet Saul himself, a proud and occasionally difficult Jewish man, used to getting his own way, and his longsuffering wife Monique who isn’t even certain she’s made the right decision in staying married for so long to such an overbearing man.

“Given everything, would I do it all over again? Maybe. Maybe not. But I made my choice years ago, and I am almost sixty-six and a grandmother.”

The other monologues are delivered by Saul’s son Joey, with whom he has a troubled relationship, his devoted daughter Florence and the Alzheimer’s specialist who oversees Saul’s treatment and care. The first person sections narrated by Saul himself give an excellent insight into the progress of his illness and how frustrated he is with his situation. It’s not easy for a man as powerful and proud as Saul to watch his autonomy gradually disappear. His accounts of events, lucid at first, become increasingly rambling and confusing as the novel proceeds. Saul’s chapters become shorter as his grasp on language erodes, until the final few chapters consist of nothing but strange composite words, (“Just…hEr as Pretti…Choo fLeur,”) which can be interpreted as meaningful within the context of his story, but are nonsensical to the uninformed. However, what makes An Absent Mind a truly unique reading experience in regards to Dementia, is the way it depicts the collateral damage inflicted upon those close to Saul.

Monique struggles to serve a now vulnerable man who has often made himself deliberately hard to like. Saul isn’t particularly affectionate or grateful. He has always been a demanding man. Now, faced with becoming her husband’s carer, Monique wears herself down physically and mentally trying to look after someone who never went out of his way to look after her. It’s a familiar and very believable snapshot of what many families and partners face when a difficult person develops Dementia. Rill is brave and honest to state so bluntly that an obnoxious person who is living with Dementia will most likely be as unlikable as they were before developing the illness. Joey also struggles with this. His father never tells him he loves him and is constantly putting his son down. Joey finds it hard to love and feel loved by his father. It’s only after Saul loses his ability to communicate that Joey finds a note scribbled in his father’s handwriting, 

“Dear Joey, I never told you while I was alive how much I loved you and how proud I am…”

Rather than bringing some sense of closure, this admission leads Joey to wonder why his father never once, in forty years, uttered these words himself. An Absent Mind is a novel about families and the complex and subtle ways in which people can both love and utterly devastate each other. It’s a novel about missed opportunities and important truths which have gone unsaid, dependency, disappointment and failed expectations. All these issues are present in most families. However, Rill in his novel, exemplifies the way Dementia will exasperate existing problems and expose a family’s fault lines. He paints a bleak but unflinchingly honest portrait of a real family trying to muddle through.

An Absent Mind was published by Lake Union in 2015