Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Would You Know Your Own Child?

Imagine my surprise when I realised the hard-to-believe premise of Deceptions, by Rebecca Frayn, is based on a true story. If your son disappeared at the age of 12 and returned a few years later, would you be able to recognise him with certainty? Would you know if the returning prodigal was an impostor, and if so would you pretend not to notice?

It really doesn’t matter whether this is credible or not, or that we can ruin part of the plot by reading about the story that inspired Deceptions in the back of the book. The character who fascinates the reader isn’t Dan, the 12-year-old who vanishes without a trace, or his widowed mother Annie, whose obsessive search is completely understandable. Our attention is all on Julian, the man who had moved in with Annie and had just asked her to marry him when Dan set off on his bike to school one morning and didn’t come home again.

Frayn has taken a real risk with Julian, and so has the publisher. Not so long ago aspiring novelists were told main characters had to be likeable, and Julian certainly isn’t able to get our sympathy at any level. Annie wants to be totally politically correct, with her left-wing views, her relaxed attitude to parenting, and her determination to live in a poor area and send her children to the local failing comprehensive.

Julian is an art specialist and valuer, pulling on his hygienic white gloves to study and evaluate fakes and masterpieces in the art world. The comprehensive school is disturbing to him, with the sound of lower class accents and children of diverse nationalities. There’s an undertone of racism and snobbery running through his first person narrative.

We don’t feel we can believe what he says because he’s so unsympathetic to us. As his dislike of Dan becomes more apparent, together with his resentment of Annie’s continuing love for her son, we do wonder if he knows more about this disappearance than he’s telling us. Annie’s daughter is quite different, seen as delightful and intelligent by him, and he likes to take her for long walks. We don’t quite trust him alone with her either.

The character of Julian is so well drawn that we can’t tell if he’s the good man he makes himself out to be, devoted to Annie and her daughter and just repressed and lacking in social skills, or if his dislike of Dan’s lack of intelligence and poor grammar is part of a dangerously abusive hidden side. Even Dan had started to be embarrassed by his mother’s Guardian on the table and had stopped bringing friends home, so it’s up to the reader to decide exactly what’s going on and who to like, if anyone.

Before Dan’s disappearance, Annie and Julian liked to joke about their different personalities, enjoying the roles of ‘right-on parent’ and ‘old fogey’. After Dan goes, their personalities force them apart, as Annie sees her engagement to Julian as the reason he ran away – if he ran away. From his lonely new bachelor flat at a distance, Julian sees the shabby residential area as a kind of utopia he wants to return to.

It’s a pity the book blurb informs us that Dan is going to turn up again as this could work well as a surprise. But is it really Dan? Can we trust Julian who has lost all respect in the art world by calling a genuine painting a fake and losing a client a small fortune? Would he not want Dan to return and convince himself any pretender to his place with Annie was an impostor? He certainly kept hoping she would forget Dan, and this insistence ruined their relationship. Or would Annie be the one to delude herself?

There are all sorts of questions in this book that keep us reading on, not least the difficult problem of how we can fit a new relationship into an established one parent home.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Poem For My Father

This morning my brother called to say my father had died in his sleep during the night. It was exactly how he would have wanted it, after a day helping the neighbours to keep their radiators working well. He was the oldest of the neighbours but he never stopped with his DIY and wanting to spend time with others.

When my mother died five years ago he moved up to a place near Edinburgh in Scotland to live next door to his closest friend. So I know he was happy, in company, and was active and enjoying himself right up to the last day. His unusual silence this morning meant he was missed immediately and he was found in his bed as if he had slept without knowing a thing about his passing.

Here's a poem I wrote for him a few years ago, and my thoughts also go out to everybody who has lost a father this year or other years, especially at this time.


Each night my father –
a one-time sparks
on Greek merchant ships –
sent us off with
Da-dit-dit-dit, dit, da-dit-dit,
or Adi ypnos
which even the dog understood.

When arguments loomed
he de-stressed, a teenager again
on stage at Drury Lane
in bell-boy uniform,
ukulele in hand,
Leaning on a Lampost
or Mr Woo.

He parted his hair in the middle,
crossed his eyes
and found jokes to punctuate
attempts at conversation –
like The only head bigger than mine
is Birkenhead
, and Why
do giraffes have such long necks?

But when he spoke of his past
he only said it once.
How, in storms at sea,
he cupped his soup-bowl in one palm,
then swayed it like a hammock
so the spoon never lost a drop –

that the eeriest place on earth
is a hurricane, the silent eye,
where the sea surface is oil smooth
and the only way to safety
is to leave this haven,
hold on tight,
confront the battle raging
through its troubled tail.


Sparks - radio operator
Da-dit-dit-dit, dit, da-dit-dit - morse code for B-E-D
Adi ypnos - My father’s Greek for go to sleep

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Pageturning Novel About Alzheimers?

Pageturner, alzheimers and novel aren’t three words you’d normally expect to see in the same sentence, and yet they go together to describe Still Alice, the debut from Simon & Schuster by Lisa Genova. When I saw the blurb I was a bit reluctant to start reading, thinking the subject would be depressing and stressful. How wrong I was.

Still Alice is a remarkable novel that will change the way you view alzheimers and the way you respond to people with this condition. It will change the way you think about alzheimers if you are ever diagnosed with it, and will certainly influence the way you relate to people close to you if they become affected. If you are already living with alzheimers, as a patient or as a friend, relative or professional, Still Alice is a novel you should take a look at.

Genova puts us right inside the experience of alzheimers by telling this story through the first person narrative of Alice, a university professor who is just 50 when she gets her diagnosis. She knows exactly what this will mean because, like Genova, she is a neuroscience specialist. The novel opens with Alice at her most capable intellectually – known in academic circles for her amazing ability to remember the detailed facts of her subject, including where precisely to find the quotes to reference research papers.

Alice relaxes by jogging round her town, knowing the map of the area and loving her independence. Admired by her colleagues and loved by her husband and daughters, she’s the type of career woman and successful family organiser many would aspire to emulate. Like us, she puts the first signs of memory loss down to trying to do too many things at once, but the diagnosis comes quite early in the novel. After that, due to her professional expertise, she knows how to recognise and chart her own progress into alzheimers and how she feels she should prepare for what is to come.

This knowledge also lets her find strategies to cope with each stage and to plan for what she wants to do when it goes too far. She knows she won’t be able to remember how or why she will want to end it all at a certain stage, so she leaves instructions for herself that she hopes she will follow regardless. Her Blackberry soon becomes her way of giving herself a To Do list to follow, as memory fails, and it has one important instruction of how to find the means of suicide on the day she can’t remember the answer to a few simple questions.

Once she no longer remembers simple information about her family she feels it will be time to use some items she has prepared to kill herself. Many of us would feel we would want to do the same. But as the story progresses, as we really feel what it is like to be Alice, will we still want her to commit suicide at that key moment or will we see alzheimers in a different way? Will Alice manage to go through with her initial plan right to the end?

I won’t spoil Still Alice by giving you the answers to this. All I can say is that suicide won’t be a plan I’ll be making if I ever get this diagnosis, and I’ll remember Alice if ever those close to me are affected by alzheimers. I will never see this condition in the same way again, and that’s a remarkable achievement by a novelist writing about such an important subject. On a purely stylistic level, Genova never swerves from her course of only seeing this through Alice’s eyes, and once we start this experience with her we can’t stop reading until we see it through.
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