Fiction – Kindle edition; Lake Union Publishing; 207 pages; 2015.
It might sound odd, but I’ve been thinking about Alzheimer’s disease a lot recently. Initially it was because I found out that someone I went to school with in Australia died of it a week or two ago. She was just 44 and was one of those active, sporty types who seemed invincible. Then British writer Sir Terry Pratchett succumbed and it was all over the news and social media.
I made a small donation to Alzheimer’s Research UK in honour of them both, and then I decided to read Eric Gill’s An Absent Mind, which I’d had on my wish list for a while, though, ironically, I can’t recall how I found out about it or where I saw it mentioned first. (If you’ve reviewed it, please let me know in the comments, because it may well have been your review that sparked my interest.)
The book is a fictionalised account of a man living with Alzheimer’s disease. In the author’s afterword, he said he was inspired to write it after his father had the condition for eight years, which might explain why it seems so realistic — and heartbreaking.
Charting a patient’s progress
An Absent Mind is set in Montreal, Canada, but it could be any place on Earth: this is a disease that afflicts more than 44 million people worldwide, regardless of geography or income per capita.
It charts Saul Reimer’s illness from initial diagnosis, aged 71, until his death more than five years later. Through Saul’s ramblings we get to know his feelings, his fears and his coping mechanisms. We also get to hear from his loved ones because his wife, Monique, and two adult children, Florence and Joey, take it in turns to narrate their version of events. What emerges is a fully rounded, sometimes conflicting, view of the way in which this disease cruelly robs the patient of his faculties and his family of their loved one through a steady, often frightening, decline.
From this we learn that Saul, an “Anglo” and a Jew, has always been a strong and rather controlling person, so his slide into dementia is not, at first, taken seriously by his family, least of all himself — “I sometimes forget where I park my car when I go to the mall. Florence always kids me that I have Mallzheimer’s” — but when tests reveal he’s in the early stages of the disease and that his memory loss and other cognitive functions will get worse over time, there’s no denying it and everyone has to readjust their outlook and attitude.
The impact of his illness on his long-suffering wife — a Catholic who converted to Judaism — is particularly upsetting. She refuses to accept any home help and won’t attend counselling, thinking she can cope alone, but as Saul’s behaviour worsens her own safety gets put at risk.
Florence, the upstanding, stoical and dependable daughter, does all she can, but she’s got her own husband and children to worry about. And then there’s self-absorbed Joey, a 35-year-old bachelor, who’s forever chasing the next business idea and taking on more debt than he can handle. Or, as his father so eloquently puts it:
I swear, if there was a way to get rich from marketing the sweat that drips from my armpits after I wake up from one of those dreadful nightmares of falling into a never-ending black hole, he would be the one to do it.
As you might be able to tell from the above quote, there’s a little bit of humour in the narrative to lighten the load — and there would want to be, because this is a rather depressing narrative that takes us through the three stages of Saul’s disease, including his admittance to a care home for Alzheimer’s patients in the final years of his life.
Easy to read novel about a difficult subject
An Absent Mind is written in quite a straightforward prose style. The language is plain and to-the-point. The chapters are short, too (some are only a page long), which makes it especially quick and easy to read.
I liked the author’s non-sentimental approach on how one family copes with life post diagnosis. But one of its real strengths is the way it educates its readers about the disease. This is done through the voice of Dr Tremblay, an Alzheimer’s expert, who treats Saul and narrates a couple of chapters. He explains aspects of the disease, including the fact that it can take six to 10 years to run its course, that I found particularly interesting. Until recently, I couldn’t quite comprehend how dementia could kill someone. Now I know that it can impair brain function so badly that the body no longer knows how to breathe:
Alzheimer’s is characterised by the formation of cellular debris in the form of plaques and tangles. The plaques float between the neurons, while the tangles attack the neurons from inside the cell membranes. But regardless of how they go about their destruction, they achieve the same result, preventing the neurons from communicating with one another. As clumps of neurons die, specific functions such as short-term memory, spatial relationships, reasoning, and eventually things like muscle coordination, and even swallowing, are affected. The result is always death.
No doubt as this disease becomes more prevalent in our society more novels will be written about Alzheimer’s. An Absent Mind is a good one to add to the canon.
For another take on Alzheimer’s, I thoroughly recommend Samantha Harvey’s extraordinary debut novel The Wilderness, which is written entirely from the perspective of a 60-year-old man diagnosed with the disease. For non-fiction, Annie Ernaux’s A Woman’s Story is a deeply affecting memoir about the author’s mother who dies from Alzheimer’s. If you know of any others, please do leave a comment below.
UPDATE: The Reading Agency has a list of Books on Prescription for Dementia as part of its Reading Well programme. You can read the list in full here. Hat tip to Susan Osborne, who wrote about the iniative on her blog here.