It’s official. This is an Alzheimer’s book. I did not know it was an Alzheimer’s book before I read it; the book jacket hints but does not make this statement directly. I feel a little bit cheated. I’ve stayed away from all depictions of dementia (well, except for King Lear) in print and in media ever since my mom died in 2010, not because the topic is so emotional that I’ll become subsumed in it but because once you have personal experience with something like Alzheimer’s, the details of your experience become THE TRUTH, and it can be stressful and frustrating to read an account that doesn’t reflect that truth. I could have (and have had) a conversation on this subject with someone else – I don’t dread the idea of sharing anecdotes back and forth at all – but books are different. Most of the time I feel as if reading is a social experience, but it can be an isolating experience as well. I want to engage the authors and/or the characters directly about what it’s like to watch someone sink into dementia, and of course that isn’t a feasible option right now.
This is still a good book, and I do recommend it, but here’s the thing: Alzheimer’s Disease destroys suspense in fiction. From the time the protagonist’s husband Ed first stopped being able to calculate his students’ semester grades – quite a while before his diagnosis, not in years but in pages – I knew what was coming. I felt the same way I did when I was reading Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and all of a sudden it was a brilliantly blue autumn Tuesday in New York City and one of the characters was on his way to the airport. The details in an Alzheimer’s story can vary, of course, but the narrative direction can’t. Alzheimer’s is like Poseidon’s curse on Odysseus; it’s like the decree of the oracle at Delphi in Oedipus Rex. Beyond this point there be monsters.
P.S. I have about a hundred pages to go in this novel; I thought I would have time to finish it today, but no dice. If I want to write a full review of it after I finish it, I will – but I suspect that I’ll choose to move on to a new book. We Are Not Ourselves is very artfully written and will likely be a Pulitzer contender when that time rolls around. Its protagonist has a very tightly controlled personality, and the novel is tightly controlled as well. I would like this quality more if the novel were told only from Eileen’s point of view. Eileen and Ed’s son does not have this kind of personality, but the sections told from his point of view still have this rigid quality. But it’s really an excellent novel, and I look forward to seeing what Matthew Thomas has in store for us next.