Tuesday 27 September 2016

A family's saga of forgetting and forgiving

Fiction: The Heart of Everything, Henrietta McKervey, Hachette, €15.99

Justine Carbery

Published 16/05/2016 | 02:30

Family fortunes: Henrietta McKervey paints a simple, powerful portrait of the impact of dementia on an Irish family.
Family fortunes: Henrietta McKervey paints a simple, powerful portrait of the impact of dementia on an Irish family.

As Tolstoy said "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In The Heart of Everything by Henrietta McKervey, we are presented with a very readable, humane portrait of a disjointed Irish family, thrust together in response to a crisis and we witness the fissures, tensions and grudges that can complicate relations within a family.

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The novel opens with Mags Jensen, a cheerful 67-year-old mother of three grown-up children, a woman at the heart of everything, keeping the fractured lines of communication between her estranged children open. But it becomes increasingly obvious that Mags' recall is 'off'. She's been forgetting words, her age, whether she has just had a cup of tea or not.

Her life is made up of carefully drawn up lists and labels to help her remember but despite this, her memory seems to be slipping away. Each night she writes another list, a secret list, a 'roll of shame' of all the things she forgot during the day, 'but some days it's no good: she still can't reel the thoughts in.' She feels like she is falling into a black hole 'And what's worse is that she doesn't know if it's in the past or the future.' McKervey's portrayal of early on-set dementia is spot on, achingly rendered in simple, moving observations.

When Mags walks out the front-door of her Booterstown home and disappears, her children are forced to reunite and confront the prospect that she may be missing or worse still, dead. Over the next few days they frantically try to retrace her steps along the DART line southwards to their old family home in Shankill, checking with friends and neighbours, hospitals and garda stations. As each terrifying day passes and Mags remains at large, they each must face their own demons, as well as the demons of the past. Anita, the embittered older sister, consumed by grief over the death of her young son, assumes the leading role in the search for their mother.

The unexpected family reunion forces her to consider the issue of blame and find a way of letting go, something she is afraid to do, lest her memories of her dead son vanish too.

Raymond, an alcoholic librarian living in Cork, a disappointment to himself and his mother, bristles under Anita's bossiness, but during the long days and nights of Mags's absence he admits to himself that his lengthy sojourns in his favourite pub have hampered his relationships and hindered his unfulfilled dream of being a scriptwriter.

Elin, the youngest, who fled to Scotland after a family rupture, must also learn to forgive, herself in particular, if her own relationship with Marty is to survive. All these past events are skilfully woven into the present narrative, and the tension mounts as they try to find any trace of the missing Mags.

In this simple yet powerful novel we, along with the characters, are forced to consider the role of memory and the impact of memory loss. This story conjures up so vividly the blind panic and fear one experiences when faced with a parent's imminent illness or death.

Beautifully yet simply written, fuelled by perceptive observations and raw honesty, this novel will delight fans of Anne Tyler and our own Maggie O'Farrell.

The climax when it comes is a resolution of sorts, satisfyingly inconclusive. Unsentimental and credible, it leaves you thinking about the characters, long after the last page is turned.

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