Anne Griffin, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting

‘When All is Said’ by Anne Griffin

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 266 pages; 2019.

The cover of my edition of Anne Griffin’s When All is Said claims it is an international bestseller. I can see why.

This is a delightful and entertaining tale about an old man looking back on his life in rural Ireland, a man who came from nothing, struggled with dyslexia and reinvented himself as a farmer with an eye for property acquisition.

It shows how the course of his life was altered by a single act in his childhood involving a rare gold coin, an act that binds him to the owner forevermore.

An evening in the bar

The novel is set on a single evening, in the bar of a grand hotel, and is split into five parts. Each part is a toast dedicated to a person who played an important role, whether for good or bad, in 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan’s life.

First Toast: to Tony
Bottle of stout

Over the course of the evening, interspersed with wonderfully amusing details about the hotel and its young landlady owner, we learn about Maurice’s upbringing and the relationships he had with his older brother, his wife Sadie, his two children and his sister-in-law. It’s a typical life in the sense that it’s filled with births, deaths and marriages, ups and downs, tragedies and small triumphs.

But for all the charm and witticisms Maurice displays as he relays his life story, there’s an undercurrent of unease.  On more than one occasion I wondered if others actually liked him? Was he petty? Perhaps even sly and cruel? For throughout the tale Maurice holds a grudge, and a deeply felt one at that — and it’s largely about that aforementioned coin.

A lifelong grudge

This is how the grudge came about. When Maurice’s headmaster advised him to leave school, aged 10, because he struggled to read and write — thanks to what was clearly a case of undiagnosed dyslexia — he went to work for the Dollards, a Protestant family in a Big House, where his mother was already employed in the kitchen.

Maurice did odd jobs around the farm but was subjected to terrible beatings and bullying, mainly by the Dollards’ son, Thomas, who was of a similar age.

Quicker than I thought possible, Thomas was there at my back, a hunting crop in his hand. As I turned, he struck me with it, the metal slicing into my cheek. When I fell to the ground holding my face, he kicked my stomach again and again and again.

Maurice gets to avenge these ongoing cruel acts several months later when he scoops up a gold coin that Thomas has flung out an upstairs window as part of a fight with his father. No one sees Maurice take the coin which turns out to be an exceedingly rare gold sovereign produced when King Edward VIII was on the throne but removed from circulation upon his abdication in 1936. The coin is so rare that its loss costs Thomas his inheritance — and later his sanity.

(Side note: the coin, it turns out, isn’t fictionalised. Only six were produced, making them one of the rarest British coins in existence. Google tells me that the Royal Mint dubbed it the “coinage that never was” because it was pulled from production when King Edward VIII abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. One of these coins sold at auction in 2020 for £1 million. More about the coin here.)

Reading treat

When All is Said is a real treat to read. The author achieves a careful balancing act, preventing the narrative from heading into either sentimental or maudlin territory. It is tender, frank and endearing.

Maurice’s voice is brilliant — it’s intimate, moving, funny and all too human. You do feel like you are sitting at the bar with him, listening to him tell his tale. He’s a flawed character but he recognises his flaws. When he apologises to his son for not being a good father  — “I know, really I do, that I could’ve been better” — you know he means it.

I’m not sure you could describe When All is Said as a “feel good” book, but it’s certainly a warm and witty one, the kind of tale that makes you appreciate a life well lived. It is masterful storytelling.

Author, Book review, Canada, Eric Rill, Fiction, general, Lake Union Publishing, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘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.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Charlotte Wood, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Children’ by Charlotte Wood


Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 319 pages; 2008.

I read Charlotte Wood’s The Submerged Cathedral about this time last year and enjoyed it enough to want to explore more of her work. The Children, her third novel, is set over six days in February 2006.

Taken to hospital

Geoff Connolly, a retiree, falls off the roof of his home in rural New South Wales and is taken to hospital with severe head injuries. As he lays like “a mechanically breathing corpse” in the newly opened intensive care unit, his wife and three adult children — war correspondent Mandy, civil servant Stephen and artist Cathy — gather around his bedside to keep vigil.

But this is not a happy family. The siblings nurse decades-long petty grievances and bitter rivalries. Stephen has kept himself apart from the family for years and only keeps in intermittent touch with Cathy. Mandy, shell-shocked and hardened from too much time reporting from the world’s war zones, is unable to keep a civil tongue in her head — at the expense of her now crumbling marriage to Chris. While Sydney-based Cathy, the youngest, plays the role of dutiful daughter, failing to understand why her older brother and sister are always at loggerheads.

But while Geoff is oblivious to the tension and strain around him, so, too, is his wife Margaret, who is bewildered by events and the behaviour of her adult children. Her family is coming apart at the seams, but is it still her role, after all these years, to keep it together?

You bring your children up to escape sorrow. You spend your best years trying to stop them witnessing it — on television, in you, in your neighbours’ faces. Then you realise, slowly, that there is no escape, that they must steer their own way through life’s cruelties.

Dual storyline

If that’s not enough, there’s a separate drama unfolding around them: Tony, a warden at the hospital, has developed an unhealthy obsession with Mandy that threatens her safety — perhaps more so than at any other time in her life, including her stints in the Balkans and war-torn Iraq, she just doesn’t know it yet.

Wood maintains this narrative tension throughout the novel by interspersing short chapters, from Tony’s point-of-view, that demonstrate his childlike, creepy tendencies. But even without this subsidiary storyline, the main thrust of The Children — a family collapsing in on itself at a time of great distress — is a page-turning read.

The characters are so well drawn that you feel as if you’ve known them all your life. Mandy is particularly believable as the embittered, contrary and “superior” war correspondent and I like the way Wood fleshes out her back story in order to contrast Mandy’s inability to readjust to ordinary civilian life.

Authentic dialogue

The dialogue, too, is absolutely spot-on. There’s one stand-out scene in an RSL restaurant — a quintessential element of life in small town Australia, I must say — where the siblings have a spat over the menu. This deteoriates into a ding-dong battle in which Stephen delivers some hard (and painful) truths to his older sister while Margaret frets about keeping up appearances:

But Stephen is aflame. ‘You just hate ordinary people, Mandy. You hate ordinariness. But the poor bloody people overseas you are always going on about, that you make your famous living out of? You know what they want? Ordinariness. They want exactly what it is about this place that you despise!’
Mandy is silenced. She puts a cigarette to her lips, staring at her brother. She has never hated anyone so much in her life.
‘You can’t smoke in here!’ Margaret cries.

Wonderful family drama

The Children is a wonderful family drama — on an equal to anything that loads of famous white American males churn out and for which they get lauded — that puts “normality” under the microscope. It is closely observed and so beautifully nuanced that I’m sure you could read this book a dozen times and come away with new things you missed earlier.

My only quibble is the too-quick and overly dramatic ending — in which Tony and Mandy finally come head-to-head — because it lets down an otherwise superbly crafted novel.

The Children was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards literary fiction award in 2008. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be available outside of Australia or New Zealand.

Abacus, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hong Kong, Jane Gardam, literary fiction, Malaya, Publisher, Setting

‘Old Filth’ by Jane Gardam


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 260 pages; 2009.

First published in 2004 and shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2005, Jane Gardam’s Old Filth is one of those novels that is a delight to read from start to finish.

The central subject — a rich old man reflecting on his life in the judiciary — might seem rather staid and dull, but in Gardam’s hands it is a moving and often witty portrait of a complex and hugely interesting character.

The old man is Sir Edward Feathers, who is also known as Eddie, the Judge, Fevvers, Teddy and Old Filth. The latter is an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong.

Edward was born in India during the glory days of the British Empire — his father, Captain Feathers, was the District Officer of Kotakinakulu Province in Malaya. Sadly, Edward’s mother dies a few days after giving birth, so he is left in the care of his father, an indifferent, emotionally cold man mired in grief (and later alcohol), who pays him little attention. By the time he is four-and-a-half, Edward is a wild child, speaks fluent Mandalay and has the run of the jungle neighbourhood. But tradition dictates that he must go Home — to England — to be educated and to spare him the risk of childhood diseases.

This sets in motion a pattern that repeats itself throughout the rest of his life: wrenched from the people and places he has come to love, and thrust into new, frightening situations in which he is forever the outsider looking in. Or, as he states later on, “always to be left and forgotten”.

But despite the legacy of what can only be described as a rather cruel childhood — on arrival in England he is placed in a foster home, where the care is dubious, and at school his stammer and close friendship with another boy makes him a target for bullies and gossips — he becomes a successful advocate and judge in Hong Kong.

When the book opens, Edward is nearing eighty and living alone in Dorset, to where he and his recently deceased wife, Betty, had retired. The story interleaves his present existence — ageing rapidly, becoming forgetful and doddery — with stories of his past, including his troubled teenage years, near death on a boat headed to the Far East, and his time protecting Queen Mary during the Second World War.

What becomes apparent as Edward’s story unfolds is that his outward appearance — the distinguished career and privileged lifestyle — hides an emotionally scarred man who believes his life is bereft of meaning. And much of that is to do with the fact that Edward has no children upon which to pass his legacy.

Indeed, there’s a telling scene in which the elderly Edward tells a young woman that he and Betty never wanted children. “It was deliberate,” he says. And then, in a startling confession, he adds:

“Think carefully before you bring children into the world. Betty and I were what is called ‘Empire orphans’. We were handed over to foster parents at four or five and didn’t see our parents for at least four years. We had bad luck. Betty’s forster parents didn’t like her and mine — my father hadn’t taken advice — were chosen because they were cheap. If you’ve not been loved as a child, you don’t know how to love a child. You need prior knowledge. You can inflict pain through ignorance. I was not loved from the age of four and a half. Think of being a parent like that.”

While the novel is pervaded by a gentle melancholy, Gardam also throws in highly comic moments to lighten the mood. The humour largely works by having Edward do crazy things — such as driving rather dangerously and capturing the attention of the police — or behaving badly —  being rude to his servants — without him quite realising that he is in the wrong.

On the whole Old Filth is a richly textured novel, one that is vivid, funny and strangely moving.

Australia, Author, Book review, Elizabeth Jolley, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting

‘Mr Scobie’s Riddle’ by Elizabeth Jolley


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 240 pages; 2010.

A novel set in a nursing home doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, but in the very capable hands of Australia’s grand dame of letters, Elizabeth Jolley, it’s actually a wonderful black comedy in the tradition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Jolley, who died in 2007, wrote 15 novels. Mr Scobie’s Riddle, her fourth, was published in 1983 and won the Age book of the year that same year. It has recently been reprinted in the lovely Penguin Modern Classics livery I love so much.

Mr Scobie of the title is an 85-year-old retired music teacher, who is admitted to St. Christopher and St. Jude, a rather dubious nursing home presided over by Matron Hyacinth Price. Matron isn’t exactly Nurse Ratched, but she does have her eyes on her patient’s worldly goods and cons them into signing them over. As she battles to keep the home from falling into bankruptcy she has other problems with which to contend: her cook has a raging temper and a penchant for swearing loudly, her night nurse won’t follow instructions, and she struggles to find — and keep — female staff. To complicate matters further, her housekeeper has married her bigamist husband, and now she’s hiding him in the caravan out the back. Oh yes, this is all ripe for farce.

And then there’s the patients. Miss Hailey, who’s just 60 years old, is a nutty writer who’s penned a novel rejected by more than 40 publishers and a poem branded “indecent” by the Town Clerk. Mr Hughes is a retired Welsh farmer who has problems with his bowels. And Mr Privett writes an advertisement selling his body for a “reasonable price”.

Throw in all-night card games, female staff who gossip like schoolgirls, and patients who make bids for escape, and it’s clear that Jolley’s created a rather funny novel. But she treads a very fine line between comedy and pathos, and only a blinkered reader would miss the social commentary that runs throughout this novel.

Ms Jolley has a lot to say about the lack of respect society has for those we brand “old folk”. We see this via Mr Scobie’s abject misery at having to give up his lovely house and land at Rosewood East. Indeed his riddle — that death is the only certainty in life — isn’t as funny as it might sound. This is a man who hankers for the past because he knows there is no future. Not even his nephew, a burglar on the run, and his niece, who has settled for an unsuitable man, give him any cheer. Instead, he’s locked up in a house full of “evil people” with whom he has nothing in common but age. Any wonder he tries to escape?

I went through a whole gamut of emotions as I read Mr Scobie’s Riddle. I laughed, I got angry, I tried not to cry. It’s a truly poignant novel peopled with a cast of characters that feel very human despite their eccentricity. I loved this book, and think it deserves a re-read if only to pick up on all the gentle nuances I missed first time round.

Please note that the Penguin Modern Classics edition is only available in Australia, but if you live in the UK you should be able to pick up older secondhand editions for just a pound or two online. It will be money well spent.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Samantha Harvey, Setting

‘The Wilderness’ by Samantha Harvey


Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 336 pages; 2009.

Samantha Harvey is an exquisite writer and a skilled novelist. The Wilderness is so accomplished on so many different levels — stylistically, creatively, intellectually — that it seems astonishing that this is her first novel. What is not astonishing is that it has been shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction. And if I might be so bold as to make an outlandish claim based on nothing more than instinct, I rather suspect it might win. Or at least I hope it does.

While not much seems to happen in the book, it is an utterly engrossing story, one that is shocking and melancholic and life-affirming by turn. It has the atmosphere of a spellbinding family drama, with chinks of humour shining through, that someone like Anne Tyler might write. Indeed, it feels like an American book to me, rather than one set in England,although it features some wonderful references to London and the desolate moors of Lincolnshire.

I found it so affecting that I have spent the best part of four days wrestling with this review, and I don’t think I will come anywhere close to explaining what it is about this novel that is so brilliant. Bearing that in mind, let me tell you a little of its content.

The third-person narrative focuses on Jake, a 60-something widower, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. We learn that his wife, Helen, 10 years his junior, died from a stroke at the age of 53 and that he is now living with another woman, Eleanor, who is taking care of him. (He occasionally refers to her as “that other woman” because he forgets her name; indeed he often forgets that Helen is dead.) But we never fully learn how that arrangement fell into place, only that the two have known each other for a very long time, have a shared history and that Eleanor waited 30 years to be with him.

Jake has an adult son, Henry, who is in prison, and a daughter, Alice, although it’s never quite clear as to whether she is still alive or died as a youngster.

In fact, this inability for the reader to really know the truth is one of the most interesting aspects of Harvey’s novel. Through a clever repetition of motifs — a yellow dress, a cherry tree, the sound of gun shots, mint juleps, love letters, monkeys, the scars on his grandfather’s face and a bible bound in human skin — and family tales — the story of a missing “e”, which parts of a Battenberg cake you should eat first, a 24-hour dalliance with a young woman, an inheritance that goes missing — the reader begins to see how Jake’s memories are slowly deteriorating as his disease takes hold. Stories shift and change and turn into something else, blurring the line between what is real and what is not.

Suddenly nothing he says or does can be trusted, as if it used to be quite an informal kind of illness and now it becomes official. The timeline is a mass of crossings out and corrections. He feels to be the supremely unconfident author of his own life. Question marks appear against words, then he deletes the question marks, thinking that if he doesn’t question the truth there is no question about it. It is only him, as the woman says, only him who is confusing things.

But this book is as much about architecture as it is about Alzheimer’s. Indeed, Jake, a former architect, refers to the amnesia of his profession on several occasions, and it soon becomes clear that very few of his buildings have been memorable. Ironically, his crowning achievement is a prison extension — a utilitarian monstrosity that caused a public outcry — that now houses his wayward son.

And there’s a bit of politics thrown in for good measure in the form of the Six-Day War of 1967 between Israel and the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, one of the crystallising moment’s in Jake’s life. He is so affected by the conflict he sets up a pro-Israel lobby group, because as an architect,he has had his own fights over land. But his mother, Sara, an Austrian Jew, does not approve. “You have foolish ideas,” she tells him, before later adding: “These groups, what good arethey? You must leave it alone and save the energy for your  family.”

And it is family — Helen, Henry, Alice — which forms the epicentre of his life, and as the memories of them slowly fade and become lost in a fug of confusion the life-affirming nature of this book really hits home: without our memories we have no history, no sense of self, nothing, in fact, to hold onto or to make sense of the world around us.

The Wilderness is an outstanding novel on so many different levels everything I read in its aftermath will seem pithy by comparison. I don’t often re-read books, but I have a feeling that this one may just become an old friend. Indeed it invites a second and third reading to really come to grips with the detail of everything within.