Book Review: A Little Unsteadily Into Light

A Little Unsteadily

A Little Unsteadily Into Light is a collection of fourteen new short stories that were specially commissioned for this anthology. Each explores the experience of living with dementia but from a variety of perspectives. It grew from a project being run by a small team of academics at my alma mater, Queen’s University, Belfast. The team also included a practising writer, Jan Carson, whose role was to ensure the research had a meaningful impact on the wider community. She read widely to familiarise herself with fictionalised accounts of dementia already published. As she writes in her introduction:

“I soon realised there was a distinct lack of diversity in the dementia novels and short stories which have so far emerged. This anthology … is a small attempt to redress the existing balance of dementia fiction.”

While this academic background is of interest, not least because it provides the promise of authenticity in character portrayals and development, the collection offers stories from both emerging and established writers that are, quite simply, a pleasure to read. So many people, including myself, have been touched by this distressing illness and, within these pages, will find resonance. As well as carers, friends and family members, voice is given to the patients. Not all of them were nice people even before diagnosis, although some hid this well. It is also made clear that dementia does not just affect the elderly, or the white middle-classes.

The first story, This Small Giddy Life by Nuala O’Connor, focuses on two sisters, Sharon and Imy, whose mother has recently died with dementia. Their upbringing was peripatetic leading to feelings of resentment towards their single parent. Imy now lives in Spain and left Sharon to provide whatever care their ill mother needed. Feelings of duty, if not love, are not always shared by siblings.

Downbeat by Chris Wright also features two sisters who do not always agree on the care they should provide for their ill father. The man can be difficult to deal with as he attempts to assert agency. Caring for him is stressful, affecting the sisters’ home life – including a husband trying to be supportive but also requiring attention for himself.

Some stories are set in care homes where staff must deal with those in the later stages of dementia.

Our Dear Ladies Have Outnumbered Us adds a touch of humour when a well ordered facility faces disruption in the form of a spirited new resident.

Fingerpost by Mary Morrissy explores how the illness can affect lifelong friendships when normal social filters break down.

“Was this the illness talking? Or was this what Delma had felt all along?”

Immurement by SinĂ©ad Gleeson features an attentive daughter – turning to sex and alcohol as coping props – whose mother now talks critically of her as if she is not there.

“A good girl. Had loads of potential but messed it all up. And she’s putting on weight now too”

Some of the authors adopt slightly surreal approaches. A New Day, Tomorrow by Henrietta McKervey explores memory and loss. The Portal by Caleb Klaces uses a story within the story to show a young man how an older one views his world.

Children looking after ill parents reflect on their relationship over time, how damage caused by words or attitudes has cast shade over decades. Coming and Going by Paul McVeigh was particularly poignant, especially around the time the protagonist came out to his parents.

“My sister told me that I had no right to tell him and Mum. That it would be selfish of me … It was exhausting pretending to be someone I wasn’t.”

Caring for a relative with dementia requires that lies are gone along with to avoid upsetting the patient – pretending to share what is their current reality.

Of course, not all the families featured are fractured. The final story, My Way Home by Caleb Azumah Nelson, has two siblings willingly caring for their father in shifts, with occasional crossover.

In the Afterword, Jane Lugea writes of the research project and how information was gathered.

“The most significant thing I learnt is that creative writing offers ways of understanding dementia that medical factsheets, media representations or casual conversations cannot.”

In offering the reader such a wide variety of fictionalised experiences, this anthology provides an understanding of behaviours – which some actively embrace while others find they need to walk away from. Just as the ill are individuals with personalities and differences, so too are those whose lives they have affected, before and after diagnosis of dementia.

A fine collection of short stories that happen to have a theme of living with dementia. It will foster empathy in the reader, and that is vital if society is to help the growing numbers who will come to need it.

“These characters might have dementia, but dementia’s only a small part of who they are.”

A Little Unsteadily Into Light is published by New Island Books. My copy was provided gratis.