Book Review: The Silent Treatment

The Silent Treatment, by Abbie Greaves, tells the story of Frank and Maggie, a married couple who have been together for forty years. Despite continuing to live in the same house – eating and sleeping together – Frank hasn’t spoken to Maggie for the past six months. He has a secret that he fears, if shared, would drive her away. Meanwhile, she has reached the end of her tether.

The prologue describes events that result in Maggie’s hospitalisation. While there in an induced coma, Frank is encouraged by medical staff to talk to her that his familiar voice may help draw her into recovery. Thus the reader learns how they met, married and the difficulties they faced through their many years together.

The book is divided into two main parts: the couple’s life story as told by Frank at Maggie’s bedside, then the same story written in a journal by Maggie in the week before her hospitalisation. As may be expected, the two points of view have differences in perspective.

There is an urgency to the first part that I found lacking in the second. Both, however, are leading to key revelations. By the time these were divulged I had grown bored by the buildup. The bar of expectation had been raised to such a height it felt overworked.

Both accounts present an almost too perfect marriage. Serious difficulties encountered over the decades are acknowledged but the memories recounted are mostly frolicsome and adoring. Frank and Maggie each blame themselves for any shadows cast. Frank’s silence may be recent but they had never spoken freely. The love they retained for each other could not make up for their inability to communicate.

There is a third key character – the couple’s daughter, Eleanor. She is adored by both her parents. I found it draining to read of their pain when she started to pull away. As a parent, the impotence and despair experienced when a child is hurting but will not accept help, resonated.

There were minor inconsistencies – niggles – in Maggie’s journal entries. She wrote that she never did feel at home in a particular role yet then described it as the happiest time of her life. Perhaps this is how personal memories are always massaged.

Although I liked what the author did in the final few paragraphs it did not assuage my impatience with the structure. Many readers have raved about this novel but to me it felt bloated – the reveal not meriting the buildup. A shame, but it was not for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Century (an imprint of Penguin Random House)

Book Review: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old

hendrikgroen

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, by a Dutch author whose identity is a closely guarded secret (his words have been translated into English by Hester Velmans), is a must read for anyone who claims they wish to live into old age. It had me laughing out loud on numerous occasions, but this is an honest, poignant and insightful exposé of how it feels to exist in a busy, modern world when one’s body is inexorably deteriorating.

Hendrik Groen doesn’t like old people, particularly their endless complaints and repetitive, small minded conversation. He lives in a care home in North Amsterdam, one provided by the state at minimal cost. He admits that it is not a bad place to be, that the food is passable and he has made some good friends. Many of his fellow residents, however, he derides. Due to his habit of wishing to please everyone he cannot bring himself to say what he thinks, so he decides to write it down, narrating a year in the life of the inmates.

Given that this home is the sort of facility where people go to die, death is a regular occurence. Each time a room is vacated it must quickly be cleared that a new resident may move in. When one such arrival, Eefje, turns out to have a sharper wit than most, Hendrik befriends her. He and his select band of peers have an epiphany – if life is to be improved then they must take action. To the palpable disapproval of management, they set up the Old But Not Dead Club. Outings are arranged and fun is had. Once more, they have something to look forward to, including a chance to fall in love.

Each entry in the diary presents aspects of life from the point of view of an elderly gentleman who fully recognises his incapacities yet rails against the way the growing number of old people are treated by society. He also rails against how so many of these old people talk and behave towards each other. He acknowledges the smells and the leaks and the slowness of their actions; he dislikes these unavoidable features of aging as much as anyone. What he struggles with is the narrowing of horizons, the constant discussion of ailments, the petty bullying and intransigence endemic in their everyday lives.

Alongside the routine are moments that prove Hendrik can still garner enjoyment from life. Their club outings enable the members to try new activities, to eat well and drink with abandon. Such behaviour earns them the rancour of their envious peers.

There are also the trials, when good friends suffer serious health setbacks. There is discussion of euthanasia, dementia and suicide.

The wide ranging scope of the book makes it, in my view, an essential read. It does not shy away from the issues of aging, but neither does it present it as without hope. I loved the fun Hendrik had on a mobility scooter, the way the members of the club behaved on their outings, and the subversive nature of their gatherings within the care home where they flouted the rules designed to make life boringly safe, or  simply easier for the carers.

Hendrik is incorrigible, sometimes grumpy, always relatable. His honesty is both poignant and refreshing. He asks that he may be granted a place in the world, not shunted aside as the embarrassment too many view him as.

It is pointed out that the number of old people is set to grow yet economies in provision for them are forever being sought. Hendrik does not expect to live long enough to suffer the consequences. He offers a reminder to the policymakers that they are ruling on the quality of their own future lives.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Think Jam.

 

Book Review: The Last Leaves Falling

lastleaves

‘look close and you see the hidden buds of spring’

The Last Leaves Falling, by Sarah Benwell, is not a comfortable book to read dealing as it does with the imminent death of a teenager. It takes us into a world coloured by exam stress; parental expectation; the excitement and pressure of future unknowns that, for the protagonist, have been stolen away. This is not another ‘Fault in our Stars’. It is a darker and harsher tale.

Sora is seventeen years old and has rapidly progressing ALS (motor neuron disease). He lives in Kyoto, Japan with his mother and feels a burden of guilt for her grief over his condition. Sora has been forced to leave his school which could not offer the access and support he would require as his body deteriorates. Discomfited by onlookers pity he chooses to spend much of his time alone in his room. From here he reaches out through internet chatrooms to teenagers who did not know him before, finding friends who will see beyond his condition but not shy away from what is to come as the adults in his life are wont to do.

The writing interweaves narrative with on line screenshots and chat threads. These work well at showing the importance of the internet in modern, teenage life. As Sora’s new friends agonise over schoolwork and university applications he must cope with his degenerating body. He obsesses over how it will feel to die and if there is a hereafter, frustrated by his doctor’s and mother’s refusal to discuss his concerns.

The story is undoubtedly bleak but there are chinks of light which are uplifting. The friends learn to appreciate how precious life is and that it should not be wasted. They allow themselves to dream.

The attitudes portrayed reflect Japanese culture but there are wider truths to consider. Throughout the world adults aim to guide and protect young people who may then struggle to find a way to have their voices heard. Sora turns to his friends when his mother’s love becomes a burden, finding relief when they listen and accept.

A powerful tale that is very well written. It is moving and challenging, exploring difficult issues with painful honesty. People die, then for those left life goes on. What matters is to use the time we have to create memories, to be open to new ideas, to live.