Unbecoming by Jenny Downham (David Fickling Books, 2015)
How Not to Disappear by Clare Furniss (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
Forgetting Foster by Dianne Touchell (Allen & Unwin, 2016)
I recently read these three books featuring a character with Alzheimer’s disease. Unbecoming and Forgetting Foster were both for my book group. I only just finished Unbecoming, a year later!? Fellow book groupers know more about the condition because they’ve cared for family members with it. Karen told us a person can die from it, which I never knew.
I always (wrongly) assumed a person with Alzheimer’s wouldn’t realise because they would forget they had it, of course this isn’t true. All three books bring out the confusion and fear it can entail. For the person with Alzheimer’s as well as their family, who often become their carers.
The first time Hattie meets her great aunt Gloria she muses:
“I can see the panic behind her eyes, and I remember what Peggy said, about Gloria being worried about her memory. I wonder how often she feels it, that panic. Is it there all the time, underneath all her stroppiness? The uncertainty, the disorientation? Feeling that’s she’s not quite sure whether she knows what’s going on?”
Gloria was particularly aware of what she was losing because she wasn’t as far along as Gran in Unbecoming or Dad in Forgetting Foster. The only sympton Gloria experienced was memory loss and this made Clare Furniss’ representation of Alzheimer’s disease more superficial than the other two books. I reviewed How Not to Disappear separately.
Unbecoming and How Not to Disappear have eerily similar storylines: both set in England, the older woman had an illegitimate baby as a teenager, then became estranged from her family and took up acting. Did this not so respectable profession match the young woman’s tarnished reputation? Or did it just suit an extrovert with no training.
“Every morning I wake up with such certainty, and every afternoon it slips away.”
Katie meets her Gran when Mary’s partner dies and Social Services contacts Katie’s mother as the next of kin. Caroline wants nothing to do with the mother she hates, but waiting lists for care mean they are stuck with Gran for now. Mary’s confused by the changes, but willing to make friends with these “new” people.
“Mary had the keys to the past, some kind of strange wonderland Katie wanted to explore.”
Summer holidays have just begun and Katie is eagar to get away from the school bullies after she made the mistake of trying to kiss her former best friend. Befriending an unexpected grandmother and finding out all the family secrets is the perfect solution. Mary’s favourite cafe haunt turns up waitress Simona, also taunted by the school bullies for liking girls. Katie might have found a new friend, perhaps even a girlfriend. Or if she can make herself enjoy kissing Jamie, a boyfriend.
“A walk in the park would be lovely and it was the quickest way to kill the synaptic connections between her and Simona.”
The chapters alternate between Katie’s romantic woes trying to figure out why kissing girls is so much better than boys; her detective work and writing Gran’s Memory Book; and Mary’s confusion with the present and disentangling her memories from the past.
“‘I do want something,’ Mary agreed, smiling sadly. ‘Trouble is, I keep forgetting what.’
It must be terrifying having your memories drift out of your head, yet Mary still managed to find humour in it.”
Mary’s sense of humour entertains Katie and her brother Chris but her daughter Caroline never wavers from antagonism. Every so often Gran’s sadness rises up, not quite knowing what she’s losing, but feeling its absence. The rift between Mary and her daughter wrenched my heart. How it happened, and why Caroline didn’t know her mother for years and as a teenager grew to hate her. When the truth came out years ago, the continued misunderstandings, perpetuated still, some fifty years later as Mary’s memories unravel and bit by bit the reader and Mary’s family piece together the past.
“Every damn thought kept slipping away. And her head was full of memories that weren’t in any order at all. Why, for instance, did Pat pop into her mind now?”
The drawing out of Mary’s and her sister Pat’s painful secrets was a clever reveal. Similar to Gloria’s arc in How Not to Disappear and yet so different.
Forgetting Foster deals with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and 7 year old Foster watches his father deteriorate before his naive child’s eyes. His misunderstandings were at times humorous, but impending hopelessness permeates his story. The ending was very clever and introduced a shining light on the family’s love, even if momentary. It was a perfectly chosen, uplifting denouement.
“Foster had a hole in his heart the size of the moon.”
The book design by Ruth Grüner is superb. The hole in the cover signifying everything that is lost as the brain of an Alzheimer’s sufferer atrophies. And the hole in Foster’s family as Dad’s condition worsens. The gibbous moon at every chapter heading reinforces this recurrent absence.
I recommend all three books. Each is very different and deserves reading for the story wound through the central premise of a protagonist experiencing the Alzheimer’s disease of a relative.