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Book Reviews

“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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Book Reviews

“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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“Frangipani House” by Beryl Gilroy

Frangipani House, Guyana born novelist Beryl Gilroy’s first book is set in her own birthplace. The novel’s title refers to a residential care facility where elderly women are sent to live out their final days. Mama King, the novel’s chief protagonist is forcing to move into the home by a delegation of absent children and grandchildren. She’s quite convinced that she’d be better off managing by herself and goes out of her way to be as obstreperous as possible, frequently clashing heads with the home’s owner and ultimately making a break for freedom, to live on the streets with a rag tag collection of other homeless people who give her the care and kindness she has not experienced from either her family or the people they’ve paid to look after her.

Frangipani House, like many texts of its era, does not use the term dementia, however it’s clear that Mama King is becoming more and more confused as the novel progresses. She frequently forgets where and when she’s living, mixing the past with the present and has conversations with people who aren’t present. She is not as capable of looking after herself as she’d like to think. Mama King also gives us an insight into how the other residents of Frangipani house are treated. Several are much more confused than she is. Including one ninety year old lady who inconveniently passes away, just before her birthday celebrations. The staff decide there’s no point wasting all the party food. They wheel the dead woman out in her chair and tell the other residents she’s just napping so they can continue to celebrate. A number of anecdotes like this reveal how the elderly residents are not treated with the respect and honour they deserve.

Frangipani House is a wonderful exploration of how ageing is perceived within this particular African community. The younger people talk a lot about respecting their elders and yet, when it comes to delivering physical care, they are quick to institutionalize their parents and delegate responsibility. Gilroy also explores the role of the older woman. Mama King has been a mother not only to her own daughters, but also to their children. Her girls, having emigrated to America, send their children home to be raised in Guyana. Gilroy’s novel questions how fair this system is. The children expect their mothers to provide free childcare, but when it comes to caring for these women in their later years, the same children shirk their responsibility. Frangipani House is a slim novel yet it is rich with detail and colour and full of well-placed observations about what it means to be elderly, female and African.

Frangipani House was published by Heinemann Educational Books in 1986 

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Book Reviews

“The Leisure Seeker” by Michael Zadoorian

Ella and John have been together for more than sixty years. Now in their eighties Ella has developed terminal cancer whilst John is living with dementia. Aware that they don’t have all that much time left together they decide to leave their home in the American Midwest and take one last long road trip across America to the California coast. They don’t inform their grown up children of their plan. They sneak away in their 1978 Leisure Seeker RV, (a campervan for those not familiar with the American terminology) and follow a route they’d followed years ago, when their children were much younger. 

John drives, though he’s increasingly confused and occasionally wanders off, sometimes even threatening Ella with violence. Ella organises everything, though she’s often in agony with her illness and becoming progressively more tired as the road trip drags on for days and days. Back at home, their children are frantic, imagining every variation on the worst case scenario. Little do they know. The couple are held up at knife point, suffer a bad fall and, on several occasions, John gets lost leaving Ella panicking and unsure what to do. When Ella phones home to check in with the children, she doesn’t tell them about any of this.

The Leisure Seeker is a strange little novel. It’s very readable, but the tone is quite odd. It’s hard to tell whether the reader’s meant to see this last adventure as a joyous celebration of a life well-lived, or an example of selfishness on Ella’s part. Though she isn’t technically behind the wheel, this is very much her road trip. John does as he’s told throughout the novel. For me this raised real questions about autonomy and freedom. It’s impossible to know whether a man with a cognitive impairment would willingly choose to drive across half of America in a campervan if he understood how dangerous it was. There’s also a strange change of tone at the novel’s close. For two thirds of the book it feels a little like a buddy movie: upbeat, funny, slightly sentimental, and then towards the novel’s end things take a dark turn. I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers but the final scene kind of calls into question the book’s basic premise, that it is possible to live well and fully with dementia. 

Saying all this, for a piece of commercial fiction, the dementia narrative is reasonably accurate and seems to be well-researched. The novel is narrated throughout by Ella so it’s her understanding of her husband’s condition and experience the reader is being presented with. I think this is important to note. From the perspective of dementia, the main questions which The Leisure Seeker left me with were all around autonomy and control. Is it ok that Ella decides everything for John, even if she is married to him?

The Leisure Seeker was published by Harper Collins in 2009

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“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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“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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“Gratitude” by Delphine De Vigan

Translated from the French by George Miller

Gratitude is the sixth book by French novelist Delphine De Vigan. It’s a slender little novel, I might even call it a novella, and explores one simple idea in a really beautiful and tender way. Michka is an elderly lady living with dementia in a residential care facility. As her life draws to a close and her mind becomes increasingly confused she becomes more and more intent upon tracing the young couple who hid her from the Nazis as a child. She wishes to express her gratitude to these people before she dies. Marie is a young woman who visits Michka in the care facility. She’s pregnant with her first child and as she transitions into her new role as a mother she becomes more and more grateful for the way Michka cared for her as a child when her own mother was incapable of giving her the support she required. Jerome is a speech therapist who visits Michka twice weekly in order to help her retain her fading language skills. He grows fond of the elderly lady and, as she deteriorates, begins to rethink his broken relationship with his own father. Michka teaches him an important lesson about seizing every opportunity to make amends before it’s too late.

I really enjoyed this little book. Each of the characters is simply but powerfully drawn. The emotions are neither over nor under-played. I particularly appreciated the way De Vigan does not shy away from the more difficult aspects of ageing and dementia. Her story encourages the reader to sit with grief and sadness rather than try to avoid it. “Sometimes you need to acknowledge the void left by loss. Abandon distractions. Accept there’s nothing more to say.” And yet it is also an incredibly uplifting book. There is so much warmth and genuine fondness between the characters it is impossible not to acknowledge that Michka’s experience of her last days and weeks is anything other than meaningful. As the title would suggest, this is a novel about being grateful for the life you have been given, even when that life doesn’t turn out the way you’ve expected. It’s about finding peace in the midst of turmoil. It is a novel shot through with hope.  

I also appreciated the close exploration of how dementia has impacted Michka’s use of language. As a speech therapist Jerome is able to give the reader an insight into the aphasia and linguistic confusion Michka has to navigate every time she tries to speak. It’s intriguing and powerful in the English translation. I only wish my French was good enough to read it in the original version. This isn’t a high concept novel. There’s not a terrible amount of plot. It’s all about De Vigan’s exquisitely drawn characters and the way they pivot around each other, grateful for their friendship with Michka and determined to make the most of it.

Gratitude was published by Bloomsbury in 2021 

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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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“The Twilight Years” by Sawako Ariyoshi

Translated from the Japanese by Mildred Tahara

First published in Japan in 1972, Sawako Ariyoshi’s novel, The Twilight Years was not translated into English for almost a decade. It is very much a period piece, beautifully written and faithfully translated, albeit a little dated in terms of its outlook and attitude. The novel’s main protagonist is Kyoko, a middle-aged woman who lives with her husband and teenage son in a small house in Tokyo. Her elderly in-laws live in a purpose built bungalow on the other side of the yard, although she is not particularly close to them. This changes when her mother-in-law dies unexpectedly and her father-in-law begins acting strangely. Shigezo is diagnosed with senile dementia and becomes increasingly dependent upon his daughter-in-law for care and support.

The writing is exquisite. Ariyoshi gives us a stunning snapshot of family dynamics in a modern 1960s middle class home. The novel says as much about changing attitudes to the role of women as it does about how dementia is viewed. Kyoko is expected to be solely responsible for her father-in-law’s care, including sleeping in the same room as him once he begins to wander off, bathing, toileting and feeding him. She’s also responsible for maintaining the house and feeding her family and still must manage to hold down a day job. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a portrait of a different time as I found the men’s attitudes so utterly deplorable. There is no sense of sharing responsibility for elderly care. Looking after the sick and ageing is not considered a worthy role for a man.

There’s also no question of bringing in outside help. Shigezo is not eligible for regular caring support. The specialised residential care units are all oversubscribed. His only option is a horrific-sounding mental hospital, although Kyoko is advised to avoid this option. She’s repeatedly reminded that an older person should be looked after at home by his relatives. There’s an interesting paradox at work in this novel. Older people are to be respected. Their families must honour them by caring for them in their final years. And yet, the rhetoric around ageing is quite disturbing. As the average life expectancy rises in Japan, the younger people are horrified by the reality of growing old. Shigezo is described as a burden and disgusting and on several occasions, younger members of his family express the belief that they’d rather kill themselves than end up living as he lives. At times these passages make quite hard reading. The Twilight Years is a testament to a different time. The protagonists are many years away from understanding the complexities of dementia or how a person might live well with the illness.

However, it’s not an entirely depressing novel. There are moments of simple beauty and times when we’re given an insight into more positive aspects of elderly life in Japan. I also loved the way Shigezo’s relationship with his daughter-in-law progresses and changes throughout the novel. Kyoko has always disliked and distrusted the old man but as her caring responsibilities place her in intimate proximity to him she slowly begins to form a connection and by the time he finally passes away, is incredibly fond of her father-in-law.

The Twilight Years was published by Peter Owen: London in 1984