Thursday 22 March 2018

Books: Touching portrait of life with dementia

Still You, Claire Allan, Poolbeg €16.99

Claire Allan's Still You.
Claire Allan's Still You.

Margaret Carragher

Mark Twain's directive to write what you know serves author Claire Allan well. Having watched her once razor-sharp grandmother's decline into Alzheimer's, Allan's eighth novel shows to remarkable effect the devastating consequences of such an illness, not just on the sufferer but also on their loved ones.

Set mostly in Derry (where the author herself was born and now works as a reporter and columnist with the Derry Journal) and Italy's Lake Garda, the narrative moves between the early-to-mid 1960s - when its main protagonist, Aine Quigley, was in her prime - and the present day, as she struggles to cope with a disease that is chipping away at her brain, obliterating her memory and dismantling her personality. To make matters worse, in her periods of lucidity Aine is all too sadly aware of her condition, and is increasingly fearful of what the future holds.

Enter Georgina, a care assistant engaged by Aine's nephew Jonathan Hegarty to help his aunt around the house and keep her company. Having recently been dumped by her husband, Georgina's confidence is at rock bottom and she doubts her ability to cope with her new charge. However, the pair, perhaps sensing each other's dejection and vulnerability, instantly hit it off, and Georgina resolves to do all in her power to make Aine's situation as easy as possible for as long as possible.

And so, having discovered the benefits of physical and mental stimulation in the treatment of dementia sufferers, Georgina starts taking Aine out to places that hold happy memories for her and reviving her youthful passion for cooking and gardening, activities that serve to bring the narrative back to 1964, when Aine was a shy young schoolteacher living with her widowed mother, in the shadow of her older sister Charlotte. Elegant, ebullient and worldly, Charlotte's life as the wife of wealthy international businessman Jack Hegarty couldn't be more different to that of her sister. But despite their diversity, the siblings are devoted to one another; and when Charlotte accidentally drowns in the pool of her Italian villa, Aine is bereft. Heartbroken by the loss of his wife, Jack entrusts their children - five-year-old Jonathan and his sister Emma - to the care of his sister-in-law, a move that changes the course of Aine's life as, in putting the children's needs ahead of her own, she ends up losing out on her dearest wish: marriage and motherhood.

Now, half a century later, Aine still lives in the family home, Temple Muse. Surrounded by memories that are growing dimmer by the day, she looks back on all that has passed and on the choices that have led to where she is today. Because despite her affliction Aine is still very much her own person - hence the book's title, which eloquently conveys its author's take on the vexed issue of dementia. Explaining her motivation, Allan says: "Dementia is an issue close to my heart. My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's more than a decade ago. Through watching her. . . I realised how truly heartbreaking this illness is. There is nothing that prepares you for someone you have loved and looked up to all your life not recognising you anymore." Allan's compassion for the plight of dementia sufferers is manifest in every line of this remarkable book. "I wanted Still You to ...highlight the individual nature of each person living with dementia... [and] show that someone with dementia is still someone."

This she has done, to remarkable effect, in her touching and thought-provoking tale.

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