‘An Absent Mind’ by Eric Rill


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.

23 thoughts on “‘An Absent Mind’ by Eric Rill

  1. I saw on FB that you were reading this as a break from The Master and Margarita, but it doesn’t sound very light-hearted.
    Have you read John Bayley’s memoir of Iris Murdoch? I liked that because it showed that despite it all someone could still love you for yourself right to the very end.


    • Have you read The Master and Margarita? ANYTHING is lighter than that heavy tome. I haven’t been so challenged by a novel since Ulysses. LOL.

      And no, I’ve not read the John Bayley memoir… thanks for the recommendation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I read The Master and Margarita at university and I think I liked it but it was so long ago I can’t remember why except that it was weird and strange and I was just discovering weird and strange could be really good fun. *blush* But you have to remember that I had raised myself on a diet of Victorian classics and a bit of George Orwell so, well, I was up for anything really!


  2. Thanks for this review. My father is in the early stages of Alzheimers so I am very interested in this subject. I’ve bought this based on your review and will get to it soon. Thanks also for the recommendations of other books on the same subject.


    • I’m sorry to hear about your father, Sharkell. This is a good book at highlighting what to expect, but it’s quite upsetting in places, so I’m not sure that’s something you’d want to read or not given your personal connection…?


  3. It’s interesting to learn how someone dies of dementia – I had never really thought of it before. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones who doesn’t know anyone affected by this disease. And, hopefully never will. I read Still Alice when it came out, and loved it. This sounds like another good one. And, it’s nice to hear that it has some humour to lighten it up a bit. Thanks for the other recommendations, as well!


    • No, I hadn’t thought of it before either, because I just kind of assumed if you got Alzheimer’s late in life then you died from old age, not the disease itself. But then that didn’t explain why someone in their 40s would die from Alzheimer’s. The book does make it clear that there are several forms of the disease and that the one Saul has is NOT early-onset, which is what my former school friend and Terry Pratchett had.


  4. I read the very popular “Still Alice” recently and very much struggled with the writing standard…I dared comment on this and was blasted by some who loved it! I would be interested to know if you’ve read Still Alice, and how these books compare.


    • I haven’t read Still Alice, so can’t compare the two. The writing is pretty basic in this novel: it’s not “literary” or even very polished, but I didn’t read it for the style (or lack thereof) but for the story/subject. It won’t be for everyone.


      • Still Alice is poorly written. I haven’t seen the film, but I imagine it is one case where the film is better than the book. I doubt anything will ever come close to The Wilderness for brilliant books about dementia, but if you’re after another one then Elizabeth is Missing is a good choice as it looks at it from a different angle.


  5. You might like to know that the Reading Agency has recently launched an initiative – Books on Prescription for Dementia as part of their Reading Well programme. It’s made up of 25 titles all of which should be available in UK libraries. Other than that I’d recommend Matthew Thomas’ compassionate We Are Not Ourselves. It’s very long but well worth reading.


    • Thanks, Susan, I’ll see if I can find a link to that initiative online. Thanks too for mentioning We Are Not Ourselves: I keep seeing that book in shops but hadn’t clocked it was about Alzheimer’s.


      • It should be easy to track down, Kim. If not I’ve written about it on my blog under the title ‘books on prescription for dementia’. They’ve also run a very successful initiative for depression.


        • Thanks, Susan, I do recall seeing that on your blog now. I’m going to add a small update to this review and include a link to your post, if that’s OK with you.

          I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by reading to ease depression. When I get the “glums” I find that reading only makes it worse, it sends me further into myself: what I need is to get out and about and do exercise — a long walk or a bike ride, for instance — but perhaps that’s just me. Maybe it does really help those who are clinically depressed rather than just feeling “a bit down” (which is all part of the human condition).


          • More than happy for you to include a link, Kim.

            I’m sure getting out and about helps mental health. It’s that good old-fashioned idea of being taken out of yourself. I believe there’s also reliable data on the benefits of stimulating blood circulation round the brain. Altogether a good thing!

            Liked by 1 person

  6. Another book covering this subject is “There Were No Windows” by Norah Hoult, a Persephone which covers the life of a woman living during the Blitz with memory loss – worth reading, I’m told!


    • Ah yes, and I have a copy of that, which has been sitting there so long I’d forgotten that’s what it was all about! Thanks for the reminder.


  7. Alzheimer’s has to be one of the cruellest diseases. My friend’s father was recently diagnosed and he’s gotten bad quite quickly. It’s an incredibly burden on a family. So I’m interested to see how an author is able to write about it without completely depressing readers! Sounds like this book was able to find that balance! Thoughtful review, as always.


    • Yes, I think it is a particularly cruel disease. My grandmother had dementia — she barely knew who we were when we visited. It’s not treatable, which makes it even more difficult: you just have to be patient and wait for the disease to take its toll. I think the author of this got the balance just write: it’s not highbrow literature by any stretch of the imagination and he makes Saul quite an opinionated old git to begin with (he’s sexist and homophobic, for instance), so you don’t immediately empathise with him. But you do grow to feel incredible pity for him and, more importantly, his wife. It’s quite a good portrait of a marriage, actually.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Making him a miserable old bigot sounds like it actually underlines the fact that Alzheimers robs us all, people that are wonderful and people that are horrible – it spares no one. To still be able to feel empathy for a character that isn’t particularly good is no mean feat.

        Liked by 1 person

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