The Gingerbread House review: a sympathetic study in dementia
Kate Thompson’s second novel as Kate Beaufoy deals skilfully with a difficult subject
Kate Beaufoy: The Gingerbread House suggests that Beaufoy has more experience of life than she did as Kate Thompson, which may be one explanation for the change of name
The Gingerbread House
Black & White Publishing
Although this is only Kate Beaufoy’s second novel there’s an impressively quiet expertise about it. But as she is also the Kate Thompson who has published a great number of fictions in the romance genre (as well as the actor formerly of Glenroe) Beaufoy is more experienced than her form could suggest.
The Gingerbread House suggests, too, that she has more experience of life than her blither predecessor, which may be one explanation for the change of name. Her theme is an old and poignant one: the pathos of the vanished past, the sweet bitterness of memories and the inevitability of illness and death.
Tess, her protagonist, is not old, but already she’s prey to these sorrows. She and Don, her husband, can laugh and joke, but they’re clearly not as happy as they were once. Certain subjects brought up in conversation can make her leave the room, there is mention of “the accident”, and wine o’clock arrives earlier and earlier. The fabulous family diving holidays in the turquoise seas of Jamaica that they used to love are a thing of the past. It’s recession time, and Tess has been let go from her copywriting job while an exhausted Don struggles on in his.
They have a teenage daughter, Katia, who’s the narrator of the story, a concerned observer. And they have Eleanor, Don’s elderly mother, who has dementia and must be looked after. Eleanor and her daughter-in-law have not been close, but, desperate to earn some money, Tess goes to live with her in her rather gloomy house in the country and be her carer. She cries as Don leaves her alone with his mother while he drives back to the city, Katia relates.
Tess does her best at the Gingerbread house, a name invented by Katia, who loves books, especially her childhood books. She keeps up her yoga and her running, sits at her computer trying to write a novel and pours herself a large gin and tonic at 6pm. But as the reality of the task of living with Eleanor, and caring for her, becomes more apparent these attempts to maintain her equilibrium – apart from the gin and wine habit – fall away.
As Katia comments, it’s relentless Groundhog Day. The details of caring for a person with dementia are unsparingly described. The bathroom routines that often go grossly wrong, the dressing in the morning and undressing in the evening, the meals to be prepared and eaten . . . They’re one thing. Then there are the repetitious conversations and explanations, the absences of memory and the flare-ups of anger and even violence. Eleanor was always haughty and “refined”, very different from Tess’s mother, and still tries to be refined despite her illness. Tess is kind to her. But her thoughts, thoughts she reveals to the hapless Don on Skype, are increasingly unkind. When her own mother got terminal cancer she chose to end her life rather than suffer its indignities, and Katia implies that Tess considers this the better course.
Katia herself is mysterious. She is ever-present, aware of everything that’s going on, yet her mother never appeals to her for help with Eleanor or even talks to her. She and Eleanor do talk, however – they’re confidantes, in fact. The reason for all this is, satisfyingly, guessable only quite a long way into the novel.
As well as the intriguing Katia, there are other interesting devices that lift the narrative. There is the spider with a Big Brother persona – this is a novel that abounds in popular cultural references – who gives Katia advice. Her David Attenborough-style commentaries (his programmes are a favourite of Eleanor’s) on the aged human are funny as well as merciless.
The subject of dementia is a prevalent one just now in novels, as it seems to be in life. It could be said to be a flavour-of-the- month subject. It’s a grim enough one, but Beaufoy infuses it with a lightness of touch that makes it sympathetic. And in her resolution – though with this subject the resolution can hardly be happy – she also expresses her romantic side in a manner that is fanciful but also pleasing. Another of her achievements is to succeed in making the not-very-nice Eleanor as affecting in her predicament as Tess is in hers.
A revised edition of Anne Haverty’s Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary was published recently