I never heard of the reviewers on the back cover of this book, but one thought this novel better than Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending”. The author is the Cairo bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and who was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Journalism and fiction are about as different as sprinting and a marathon, so I read the first sentence before borrowing it from the great Brooklyn Central Library.
” I remember him coming home from shipyards and factories, boots clinking and thumping down the sidewalk, and him whistling and smoking a rolled cigarette, metal flakes in his hair, hands stained and chipped as if he were wandering in from a war.”
I could see this blue collar worker coming home from his job. I gave the book a try.
Jeffrey Fleishman writes with feeling. The book is ostensibly about the affect of Alzheimer’s on a foreign correspondent. It is far more than this. It is a coming of age book seen through the rear view mirror. It is about the love of family as it drains in an hour-glass.
The novel takes literary license. There are multiple narrations and the memory flashbacks, which at a point overtake the Alzheimer theme, are more vivid in dialogue than one would expect even from a patient whose long term memory survives. Early on a relationship that develops with the father that to me seemed out of character and unrealistic. Nonetheless, it becomes central to the plot in a positive way. While all reviews I have read about this book are very positive, one woman said that she did not relate to how the correspondent’s wife spoke to him as she tried to rekindle his memory. I cannot attest to how all women speak, but I felt this relationship to be one of the most heart wrenching aspects of the book.
I visualized Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and the actor John Goodman while reading this book. The latter because I could see him playing the working class father if this novel was made into an Indie film. The former because of the actual torment of this disease on the patient and the family. Alzheimer and dementia affect short term memory initially, but ultimately devastate the mind and body. As in this book, patient’s are aware that they are missing something they cannot not retrieve. Some resign, some fight, all are frustrated. There is an internal scream by the patient and an external scream by their family.
I cared for my Mom before she died from dementia. It affected her ability to communicate, as well as her memory. She would forget how to compose words and sentences. I could see them in her head, her eyes and mouth trying to translate; but the synapse was a cavern that could not be breached. Some days were better than others. It was a roller coaster of extreme emotion for her and for me. Writing would damage her pride.
Alzheimer disease is different from dementia. My Mom knew who I was to the end. It made the dementia somewhat easier from my perspective. The subconscious can be a black hole when ignited by Alzheimer disease. The love, recognition and memory that the patient has of family and close relationships go dark. Patient and family share the loss. It is a Tabla Rasa without renewal.
This is a book well worth reading. Mr. Fleishman writes cleanly, with emotion and with insight. All the reviewers on the book cover turn out to be other correspondent authors from the Los Angeles Times. If they write as well as Mr. Fleishman, they too are worth reading. I am not sure what all of this says about the Los Angeles Times and journalism.
One last note. The publisher, Steer Forth Press, has a reading group guide, with questions for discussion written by Mr. Fleishman. It seems for the young adult market, as the questions are plot driven. They are the type of question you had to answer in high school English, or a poor college course. In my view, they demean the book.