At the end, they handed her enough drugs to last Ed the thirteen weeks until his next scheduled visit. There was a jolt of promise in the bag of medications. She wondered for a moment whether, if she gave him the whole bag at once, he would be his old self for a few days, an afternoon, a couple of hours. It would be worth it, even if the rest of the time he was a mess. She knew it didn’t work like that, though. His real self wasn’t hiding in there waiting to be sprung for a day of freedom. This was his real self now.
Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves is a huge sweeping novel about Eileen Tumulty, who grows up in an Irish community in New York, the daughter of hard drinking parents. She is a girl with big plans. She grows into an ambitious woman and surprises herself by falling for Ed Leary and, eventually, marrying him. But it turns out Ed doesn’t share Eileen’s ambition, and doesn’t seek better paying opportunities when they come along. In time Eileen notices a dark change in his personality and as Ed withdraws she is left to solve the riddle of what is to become of her family.
Ed’s withdrawal and subsequent personality changes are due to Alzheimer’s. And, far faster than anyone would expect, Ed is whittled away by the disease. Eileen variously copes, doesn’t cope, struggles and does the best she can. Meanwhile she forces herself through full time work, striving to claim the medical benefits on offer after ten years of service.
The story is sad, and happy, and moving all at once. The devastation of the illness, the need to cope but impossibility of coping, it is woven through. Eileen’s character is a remarkable, three dimensional creation, she is by turns driven, intelligent and proud. It isn’t just a story of Alzheimer’s, it’s a story of life and love and family. I enjoyed it and sprinted through far quicker than its 620 pages would suggest.
But here’s a thing. I don’t know if it’s a thing worth mentioning or not. But, I can’t shake the feeling that this novel, had it been written by a woman, would be dismissed as too “domestic”. I don’t know why I feel that. But it does seem that family driven dramas are deemed women’s business when written by women, but when written by men it is a brave foray into the human condition. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Thomas’ work. It was just something that circled my head as I read, like a moth drawn to a single lightbulb. Take, or dismiss, it as you will.
We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas: 4 stars.
Read it when: you have a long stretch of time in which to luxuriate in its length.