Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 202 pages; 2018.
I have Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers to thank for introducing me to this quite remarkable novel because it was her review that first drew my attention to it.
Taken on face value, Glenda Guest’s A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline could be mistaken for a maudlin story about Alzheimer’s — but it is much more than that.
It’s the kind of richly layered novel I really like, one that mixes a journey (in this case by train across the width of the Australian continent) with an immersive back story about one woman’s markedly independent life. And at the heart of it, there’s a long-buried family betrayal that has thrown a shadow over everything that has happened since.
But it’s also filled with quiet moments of joy, little accomplishments and achievements, and everyday triumphs that make up a life.
A journey to remember
The Cassandra Aberline of the title is a woman in her sixties, a former stage actress turned university lecturer, who has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s — “I found myself on the wrong bus. Then, in a tutorial, I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be talking about” — and wants to put a few things in order before the illness renders her an invalid.
She books an expensive premium class train ticket on the transcontinental Indian Pacific to travel from Sydney to Perth, where she hopes to visit the family she ran away from some 45 years ago to make amends.
Her story is broken up into stages along the 4,352km journey — “Sydney to Broken Hill, 2.55pm to 6.30am”; “Broken Hill to Adelaide, 8.20am to 3.05pm” etc — and covers what happens to her along the way, including the people she meets and the places she sees. This is interleaved with recollections of her life as a young woman, having stolen money from her father in the Western Australian wheat belt to reinvent herself on the other side of the country in Sydney, where she initially lived in rough-and-ready King’s Cross and worked in a tattoo parlour.
As the train makes its way across Australia, the view out the window of the “deserted, eternal landscape that is full of the unknowable” is a metaphor for what awaits her at the other end — of her journey and her life.
Compelling story about memory
A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline is a compelling novel about memory, including what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget, and how a disease like Alzheimer’s can take away those choices.
The Cassandra Aberline you are today is not the one you were at eighteen or twenty. It’s only our memory that ties us to those young selves.
It’s also a story about the decisions we make and how it is possible to strike out on your own if you have the resilience and desire to do so, and the ways in which it is possible to reinvent yourself.
While it’s very much a character-driven tale, it’s also a page-turner thanks to its mysterious plot, which is topped off by a neatly drawn, yet believable, conclusion. Five stars.
Sue at Whispering Gums enjoyed it too.
Unfortunately, this book is only available in ebook form outside of Australia. Check bookfinder.com for paperback editions, or you can order direct from Text Publishing.
And because the author grew up in Western Australia, I also read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian Writers page.