Would you rather lose the use of your body or lose your mind? Both so dreadful to contemplate; perhaps it’s just as well we don’t get to choose. And neither need we choose in fiction: both these novels about brain degeneration are worth your time. In the first, a concert pianist’s encroaching paralysis due to motor neurone disease is mirrored by the psychological immobility of his ex-wife. In the second, the reader can gradually make sense of the obsessions of a woman with senile dementia through the memories of her family and carers. Painful topics but, for those who need it, these novels provide a note of lightness too.
Blogger and memoirist, Irene Waters, has been collecting memories of ordinary activities across the generations and across the world. Last October’s theme, collections, sparked some interesting reminiscences about stamps, birds’ eggs and the dysfunctional parts of ballpoint pens, to name but a few. The latter came to mind when I was reading about Cathy, the protagonist of the second novel reviewed in this post, and I’ve linked her with Julia, whose unusual life, and posthumous career, is the subject of Orphans of the Carnival, who was less a collector than an object of curiosity herself. I hope you’ll be curious enough to read on.
Every novel is comprised of different parts that writers, readers and reviewers hope will combine into a satisfying whole. My last two reviews of 2016 – before I reveal my favourites of the year – are of novels for which finding that coherence is a particular challenge, but extremely worthwhile if achieved. Both published this summer, neither seems to have attracted many reviews on Goodreads, but I’m impressed with both (albeit one more than the other) so I hope you’ll at least give my reviews a chance.
Not really, of course! But I thought it would be fun to combine my reviews of two novels with “Everything” in the title, especially when both explore the nature of memory and require the reader to work a little harder to figure out who is speaking sometimes. Oh, and they both have blue covers!
As the world goes crazy, I crave, in my reading, not escapism, but a reflection of the flawed complexity of human beings and the things we do to make life that bit harder. But I need to be in safe hands to do so. So thanks to Louise Doughty and Jane Rogers – both established British authors unafraid to tackle difficult subjects – for providing that in their latest novels. Although quite different in their focus, both involve the characters reviewing painful pasts and their own culpability in order that their next mistakes might be that bit smaller.
These two novels explore the impact of two of America’s controversial wars (Vietnam and Iraq) on combatants, observers and their nearest and dearest.
Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten what you came for and had to retrace your steps until you know? Have you ever forgotten something you were sure you’d remember and ended up repeating the self-same mistake you’d made the last time? Do you bring back souvenirs from holidays; do you treasure pictures, ornaments and other miscellany, not for their monetary value, but for the memory of how they came your way?
Have you ever been touched by music in a place where words hardly signify? Have you ever been affected by a sound so loud you hear it, not just in your ears, but in your entire being? If your answer to any of these questions is yes – and I’d be surprised if it isn’t – you’ll connect with the themes in Anna Smaill’s exceptional debut novel, but you might need to hold onto these ideas to see you through the disorientating opening chapters.
The plot is a classic quest: two young men gradually uncover the tangle of lies perpetrated by the elite of their country and set off to infiltrate the seat of power and destroy the source of their destitution, risking their lives in the liberation struggle. It’s a straightforward plot, but deployed with sophistication; there’s no simple demarcation between good and bad. Reaching the hallowed halls, Simon, the narrator wonders (p273):
But what did we have to offer her in return, next to this beauty? the voice in my head says. No answers, no order. Nothing but mess, questions, fear.
The daughter of a German concert pianist and her (one-time stand-in page-turner) younger husband, Peggy Hillcoat is eight in the hot summer of 1976 when her father tells her to pack her rucksack and come with him on a journey. As they travel across Europe by car, train and, latterly, on foot, Peggy is less and less confident that this is a holiday. But the stories her father has told her about the secret cabin in the forest spurs her on, and even when she loses her shoe on a perilous river crossing she doesn’t completely give up hope. Yet when they finally reach the cabin, even her father is disappointed at its dilapidated state. Peggy is ready to return home until her father tells her that, not only is her mother dead, but the rest of the world beyond the river is no more.
Nine years later, Peggy is back with her mother in London, struggling to adapt to a world of overwhelming luxury and choice (p41):
Ivo lies in bed in a hospice, part of him, at only forty, unable to accept that he’s there. His favourite nurse, Sheila, suggests he play a game to keep his mind occupied: composing an A-Z of body parts, each linked to a tale about his life. He addresses these to an initially unnamed other – using as a form of the second-person point of view I’ve discussed in a previous post – who turns out to be his girlfriend, Mia, now sorely missed.
Ivo was born into a loving family but, after his father died when he was only six, he’s always had difficulty avoiding the influence of the wrong kind of friends. An insulin-dependent diabetic from his late teens, like some other young people with the condition, he doesn’t always attend sufficiently to his self-care. On top of this, there’s Malachy, his best friend from school and his elder sister’s partner, tempting him to sample a cornucopia of drug-fuelled highs. As Ivo’s condition worsens, and the hospice staff recommend morphine for the management of this pain, he becomes increasingly anxious about the prospect of a visit from Malachy from whom he’s become estranged.
One of the joys of fiction is its capacity to let us sample alternative lives. But even in fiction, a character can follow only one path. Or can they? Some writers have played with our human desire to know what would have happened had we chosen that route rather than this by following both. In The Post-Birthday World (described in a mini review here from Safia Moore) Lionel Shriver shows us the consequences of the main character Irina’s decision to both give into and resist the temptation to have an extramarital affair. My Real Children follows a similar structure, with alternate chapters focusing on the Tricia who marries Mark and the Pat who doesn’t.
The novel begins with Patricia reviewing her life. Nearing ninety and resident in a care home, she is often described by the staff as “very confused”. But her confusion has an extra layer to the usual fictional dementia: she has vivid memories of two separate selves with two distinct sets of children.
Both threads begin with a little girl called Patsy, playing on the beach with her father and brother. They also include Patty evacuated with her school at the outbreak of the Second World War which kills both her father and brother. Patty makes it to Oxford University where she almost crosses paths with Wittgenstein and Alan Turing and, only a few days before graduation, falls for the somewhat intense Mark. After a two-year separation and countless passionate letters, Mark phones her to ask her, somewhat hopelessly, to marry him.
Around the sixtieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War, there were whispers in the media about old men being traumatised by the memories of the horrors of their youth that were triggered by the worldwide commemorations. As a psychologist, I’d long been interested in repressed memories and, as the offspring of a World War II veteran, I was curious about the impact on my generation, one of the themes I wanted to address in my novel, Sugar and Snails. So my ears pricked up when, earlier this summer, I caught a BBC radio broadcast about a novel exploring one of the greatest atrocities of that war by a man whose father had survived it. I liked the way Richard Flanagan refused to provide easy answers: he’d spent twelve years trying to understand what evil was but ended up no wiser. I strongly recommend you listen to his interview with Mariella Frostrup – it starts about two minutes into the broadcast and lasts about 10 to 12 minutes – who does a much better job at selling the novel than I can. But I’ll give it my best shot …
With Alzheimer’s research in the news again lately, I thought I’d better knuckle down to my much foreshadowed post on literary dementia. For readers and writers who are wary of fictional old age, the spectre of dementia might seem a definite no-no. Yet there’s so much potential in the condition for creative exploration and expression: the poignancy of loss; the enigma of memory and identity; the frustrations experienced by family and other carers; even, for those who can achieve the right tone without denigration, humour. So it’s heartening to discover young women writers who are addressing these themes in their debut novels: Emma Healey in the UK with Elizabeth Is Missing, and Fiona McFarlane in Australia with The Night Guest. I thought I’d draw on those novels, along with two less recent novels from more established writers, Getting Away With It by Julie Cohen and Scar Tissue by Michael Ignatieff, to explore fictional representations of dementia.
Dementia as mystery
One of the tragedies of dementia is the way in which the ordinary is rendered unfamiliar. Names of people and everyday objects are forgotten; life becomes a mystery to be solved. This aspect of the condition is beautifully played out in Elizabeth Is Missing in which eighty-one-year-old Maud attempts to resolve the dual mysteries of the sudden absence of her good friend, Elizabeth, as well as the disappearance of her elder sister in her 1940s childhood. Maud, like a true detective, tells us how she tries
to be systematic, […] to write everything down. Elizabeth is missing and I must do something to find out what’s happened. But I’m so muddled. I can’t be sure about when I last saw her or what I’ve discovered. I’ve phoned and there’s no answer. I haven’t seen her. I think. She hasn’t been here and I haven’t been there. What next? I suppose I should go to the house. Search for clues. And whatever I find I will write it down. I must put pens into my handbag now. The thing is to be systematic. I’ve written that down too. (p22)
The Night Guest also starts with a mystery: Ruth, a seventy-five-year-old widow living alone in a house by the sea, is woken at four in the morning by the noise of a tiger in the next room:
Something large was rubbing against Ruth’s couch and television and, she suspected, the wheat-coloured recliner disguised as a wingback chair. Other sounds followed: the panting of a large animal; a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent; definite mammalian noises, definitely feline, as if her cats had grown in size and were sniffing for food with huge noses. (p1)
Dementia is also something of a mystery for those who witness the decline in a relative, as explored by a son trying to care for his mother in Scar Tissue:
When I could think about anything at all, I thought that the simplest facts about what had happened would never be clear: when her illness commenced, when she was first aware of it, whether the manner in which she had struggled with it delayed or altered its course in any way; whether the manner in which we cared for her and fought to keep her aware of her surroundings helped to slow its passage through her brain; whether it was an illness of memory or an illness of selfhood. Simple explanations will not do. They fail to accord her the necessary respect. (p170)
In their confusion, decreased competence and need for extra assistance with navigating the tasks of daily life, dementia sufferers might sometimes seem like children. This can cause frustration in relatives as in these two quotes from characters in Getting Away With It:
‘Sounds monstrous, doesn’t it? But it’s maddening, an adult acting like a child. And it isn’t like normal illness, because they won’t get better …’
‘If she were whole, herself, I could argue with her … I want her to be herself again so I can be angry with her properly …’ (p368)
Memories of the distant past are often sharper than those of more recent events, so it makes sense that Maud, in Elizabeth Is Missing, should return to an unresolved issue from her childhood. In The Night Guest, Ruth’s experience of the tiger prowling her lounge is reminiscent of a child’s conjuring of fairies, monsters or an imaginary friend. Unfortunately, her childlike innocence leaves her ripe for exploitation.
Layers of history: The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson and Truths by Rebecca S Buck … and a Zodiac flash
It was my wedding anniversary last week and, despite shying away from romantic fiction, I thought I ought to read a novel with a heart at its centre. Thus Jill Dawson’s novel made its way to the top of my TBR pile and, because of its thematic parallels, Rebecca Buck’s novel followed on.
Patrick Robson, a history professor with thirty-odd years of over-straining both his literal and metaphorical heart, wakes up in hospital following major surgery with his ex-wife at his bedside. Two hundred years apart, two teenage boys experience their sexual awakening under the wide skies of the Fenlands, and discover how the odds are stacked against those not born into wealth in cash or land. What connects the three main characters is that Drew Beamish was carrying a donor card when he was killed in a motorcycling accident, and Patrick has received his heart, while Willie Beamiss, only just escaping hanging or deportation for rioting, is one of Drew’s ancestors, and commemorated in the local museum.
In a recent post, I explored how the experience of terror and trauma can have lasting repercussions for the individual concerned. I’m also interested, both as a reader and writer, in how the impact can reverberate across the generations. Would a parent’s exposure to unspeakable horrors make them overprotective towards their own children? Would the struggle for survival render them so emotionally blunted they’re unable to give the children the love they need? Would their pleasure in the easier life they’ve created for their children be marred by envy?
Stephen is in trouble, suspended from work after a violent outburst that’s left him shaken and his wife concerned for their shared future. She wants him to talk about his childhood; he is terrified of resurrecting the ghosts of the past. Yet when he gets a phone call telling him his mother is unwell, he decides it’s time to pay her a visit in the town where the events of a single day shattered so many lives.
You know you’re in safe hands with a writer who uses the word crescendo¹ correctly on the first page, and comes with an endorsement from Alison Moore. That Dark Remembered Day bubbles with elegant descriptions from the Cornish coast to the windswept Falklands as the past is uncovered layer by layer until the full horror of that day’s events are finally revealed.
Well, the challenges are mounting: the prompts for 99-word flash fiction are announced on Wednesdays and bite-sized memoir every Friday afternoon. This week it’s travel horrors for flash and childhood jinks and japes for memoir – or is it the other way around? My secret¹ ambition is to write a piece that satisfies both simultaneously but, until I get there, I’m making do with incorporating my separate responses into the one post; it gives me another excuse for navel-gazing on the writing process from memory to memoir or not.
Time was when I loved to travel, although now I much prefer to stay at home. But I have lots of cherished memories; I even have a stack of travel diaries I could use to check my facts. Charli’s prompt sparked off a stream of reminiscence, of thrills and spills and moments of, if not quite terror, some pretty dodgy stuff. Were I better raconteur, my travels would make for some great dinner-table storytelling, but my adventures have made only a rare appearance in my fiction and, when they did, I got confused as to what was memory and what imagination. When it came to my 99-words I was overwhelmed with possibilities, yet none seemed strong enough to demand their moment on the screen.
Charli²: But it’s fiction, you’re allowed to make things up!
Annecdotist: Yeah, but somehow I don’t want to this time; I want a story that stays faithful to the things I’ve seen and done.
Lisa²: Ha ha, you’re being converted to memoir.
Annecdotist: Only for this particular topic.
In the end, an idea bubbled to the surface and I grabbed it before it could sink back down again and another take its place. I don’t know why it chose me, but here it is:
I was scared as you were, believe me, but I smothered my anxieties with thoughts of tulips, van Gogh and canals as we bedded down with the down-and-outs in a dusky recess of the shopping mall.
A perfect plan in daylight: a lift halfway to Amsterdam. We’d pass the early hours in the waiting room and catch the first train out. No-one mentioned that the station closed its doors at night.
The police beamed torchlight across our faces. I thought they might relax the rules for two sisters, strangers to the city, but they ushered us into the night.
For someone who considers herself averse to memoir, I’ve been edging perilously close to it of late. Memoir was what drew me into taking part in Charli’s flash fiction challenge although, like several other participants, I chose to produce a memoir for a fictional character rather than myself. Then I hosted a post from an actual published memoirist: a beautifully moving piece from Janet Watson on the process of rediscovering her teenage self in order to let it go. When Lisa Reiter launched her bite-sized memoir challenge, I didn’t think I’d be joining in. Yet School at Seven got me thinking about my first best friend, and he wouldn’t go away:
My First Best Friend
We sat side-by-side at the front of Mrs B’s classroom. Together we learnt cross-stitch and joined-up writing, drank stove-warmed milk from a squat glass bottle through a paper straw. Together we held out trembling hands as our teacher progressed from child to child, brandishing a wooden ruler. Together we progressed from Blue Book 1 all the way to Blue Book 6.
On Saturday afternoons I’d ride over to his house to watch Batman and Robin dispatch the villains of Gotham city on his black-and-white TV. On Sunday mornings we’d seek each other out at church.
I thought we’d be best friends forever, until the day he biked round to my house with another bunch of friends. Boys, every one of them. I stayed in my garden, watching till they rode away.
In the end, I enjoyed this exercise and was happy with what I produced. Yet where it’s been most helpful is not so much in converting me to memoir, but in nudging me a little further towards formulating my reservations about the form.
Good writing relies on specifics: a crimson tulip rather than a red flower; a curly-haired Bedlington Terrier rather than a medium-sized dog. In writing fiction, we can choose our details to fit with a picture in our head, to suit the rhythm of the prose or to mirror an underlying theme. In writing memoir, we’re supposed to stick with the facts. Janet Watson had her teenage diaries to guide her but, more than twenty years on, they wouldn’t tell her everything she needed to know to complete her book. Even in my short piece of under 150 words, I’m conscious of gaps in my memory, points where I may have strayed from the truth. I feel uneasy that I might be wrong about the year we learnt joined-up writing, and it’s only an assumption that back in 1965 my friend didn’t have a colour TV. I’m not even sure he was my first best friend. It could be I’m unsuited to memoir because I’m too uptight about these minor details, or too lazy to undertake the meticulous research needed to check them out.
Charli Mills wrote that a memory can send a writer down one of two paths: fiction or memoir. I’d love to know what makes some of us prefer one path to the other. On her blog, Writing My Novel, Teagan Kearney wrote recently on the virtues of fiction and mentioned her surprise at discovering that a friend couldn’t read novels because she was unable to suspend disbelief. I also have a good friend who doesn’t get fiction but the idea is so alien to me we’d been friends for around twenty years before I was aware of it. However this friend does enjoy memoir, which strengthens my belief that some people are more suited to one than the other.
I’m hoping to discover more about this preference for fact versus fiction as the memoir challenge continues, although I can’t guarantee I’ll join in next time.
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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