AlfabetaAnamma, 2004. ISBN: 9150103776
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2004:2
This is a striking first book by a journalist and literary critic, witnessing her mother’s journey (she hesitates to call it a decline) into Alzheimer’s disease. It is a collection of tenderly painful, sometimes upsetting, sometimes hilarious encounters, and full of memorable imagery as Marie Peterson battles to find words for her roller-coaster emotions during the onset, diagnosis and development of her mother Siv’s dementia; from that vividly remembered day when Siv came clumping along the street in oversized wellington boots, with a paper bag on her head and her mouth stained violet by the sweets she had been eating, “as if she’d tripped over and fallen in an ink pad”.
Marie and Siv are both strong, one might even say stubborn, characters who find it hard to adapt to Siv’s new dependence. Marie experiences pleasure at being needed, then inadequacy, frustration and rage. But as a professional writer, for whom words function as a dependable daily tool, she finds herself fascinated by the impact of dementia on Siv’s language. Vocabulary retrieval and powers of speech grow volatile, elements apparently vanishing only to reappear briefly a few weeks or months later. Siv uses her new, pared-down language remarkably well, and Marie soon develops expert interpreting skills. Part of her enjoys the challenge, though it makes her feel guilty to be interested by what she is learning rather than consumed by sorrow; the conventional assumption of those around her is that she must be distraught. Like the reader, she is at times surprised by her own coolly observing, investigative tone.
Before long, however, she is emotionally and physically drained: by the long journeys to visit Siv, first at home and then in residential care; by the uneven advance of the disease, forcing them to start their relationship from scratch on each new visit; by the effort of understanding what Siv is trying to communicate; by Siv’s vicious, hurtful outbursts and even physical attacks. Much is lost, yet there is a new directness and lack of inhibition between them. Marie and Siv’s earlier relationship, it emerges, was not close: Siv left her young family when Marie was two, and they have only relatively recently spent any longer periods together. Poignantly, their belated chance to get to know each other turns into an urgent, crazy race against time. Marie Peterson is an honest, self-critical writer, who makes no attempt to sentimentalize what is fundamentally a prickly, difficult relationship, characterized by mutual resentment and explosive anger. As she puts it: “the silences between us are like fields of landmines”.
Marie gropes for appropriate similes to describe Siv’s illness. The doctor’s picture of a staircase leading down is too simplistic; it is more like an outward-spreading maze, or a theatre stage in which the usual props and people are lit from new, strange angles. At the end of the book, she finds some apt and haunting images for the pain of letting go and the grief that chokes her as she tries to come to terms with her mother’s imminent death. As compelling as any novel, this is a moving, tragicomic and deeply personal story.