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