Thursday, 6 January 2011

Age Cannot Wither Her

Whilst we're talking about unusual narrative structures (as we were with Sarah Waters the other day) some months ago I read Remember Remember by Hazel McHaffie, which she very kindly sent to me as a review copy. I find Alzheimer's sad, terrifying, and fascinating all at the same time, partly from experience within my own family, and I am drawn to writers who can portray dementia well. Or, indeed, any sort of illness or mental state which requires the author to give a wandering narrative voice.

McHaffie's novel is split into halves. The first is devoted to Jessica and her attempts to grapple with her mother's (Doris) dementia. Doris is becoming a danger to herself, and Jessica makes the difficult decision to find a residential home for her. Whilst sorting through Doris' possessions, she makes unnerving discoveries about her mother's and her own past. Thrown in amongst this intrigue are the everyday stuff of difficult children, unhelpful siblings, and a love interest in the form of Aaron the lawyer. I did wonder a bit whether Aaron was added at the suggestion of an editor, because he didn't seem quite to fit with the rest of the novel - does every book need a love interest, really? - but we shan't squabble over him.

To be perfectly honest, all this felt perfectly serviceable, but perhaps a little uninspiring. Documenting the grief and anguish of caring for a mother with dementia is done well, but other people's grief can only be documented so many times. And, like love, it is all-consuming when one experiences it oneself, and difficult to find captivating when one is not - with the very honourable exception of Susan Hill's In the Springtime of the Year.

So I was flicking through, thinking Remember Remember a perfectly good - and perfectly ordinary - novel, when the second half launched itself. Suddenly we move from Jessica's viewpoint into Doris':
The board says summer. 29 August. A sun, smiling. I smile.
Yellow. I hate yellow.
"You OK, Doris?" a blue lady says as she stomps past.
Doris? Doris isn't here. But I know where she is. Hiding. Hiding under the shed in our garden. Hiding from Papa.
The reader is swept into Doris' confused and disorientating perspective on the world - and it is confusing and disorientating. This has been done brilliantly elsewhere - I recommend Eric Melbye's Tru and Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel - but, if not quite at their heights, McHaffie offers a unique twist to the narrative of dementia. Each chapter of Doris' perspective takes a step back in time. To be honest, I never worked out if the time gaps were sequential or cumulative (i.e. did 'three years earlier' mean subtract another three years, or simply three years from the present?) but that doesn't really matter. What McHaffie cleverly presents is a mind, and thus a prose, that gets gradually more and more coherent - the mirror image of a mind disassembling through dementia.

As with Sarah Waters' novel, there is much that is revealed through this anti-chronology - and I don't want to spoil anything for potential readers. What I will say to anybody who does pick up Remember Remember is: persevere. The first half may feel a little ordinary, but I think McHaffie was just readying herself for the second half. That's when things get interesting - in terms of structure, narrative events, and especially narrative voice.

Thanks for sending me your novel, Hazel - and I'm pleased I finally remembered to write about it! And, because I forgot to mention it earlier, a big gold star to Tom Bee, who provided the design and image for the beautiful cover. Give yourself a pat on the back.


  1. How interesting! And a really beautiful review, I might add. My grandmother has dementia, and it really is sad to think of the once sophisticated woman withered into someone who thinks I'm still four.

    Have you seen the film 'Away from Her' with Julie Christie? Brilliant, and if this subject interests you, I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

  2. Daniel - I have indeed seen the film, in fact I bought it before Julie Christie got her Oscar! I thought whoever played her husband (Matthew something?) was astonishingly good. My grandmother also had dementia, although I never saw her after it had got really bad. Have you seen the film Iris? Such a brilliant performance from Judi Dench, and I wept all the way through it.

  3. Yes! But its been years!! I think I'm going to watch it this weekend, I'm due for my annual cry.

  4. I do like that cover I have to say. I think this sounds an interesting read, I had an uncle who sadly passed away last year from dementia and so find any books on it of interest. Especially those from the dementia sufferers point of view.

  5. Daniel - I was going to watch it this evening, but The Truman Show won out in the end... probably for the best. Even that film made me cry, so I'd be dehydrated if I'd watched Iris.

    Simon - I think you'd find it interesting, definitely, especially with personal experience. Hazel M did her research well.


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