Sometimes the past won’t stay hidden, it demands to be uncovered…
Arthur Pettinger’s memory isn’t what it used to be. He can’t always remember the names of his grandchildren, where he lives or which way round his slippers go. He does remember Maryse though, a woman he hasn’t seen for decades, but whose face he will never forget.
When Arthur’s granddaughter, Maddy moves in along with her daughter Esther, it’s her first step towards pulling her life back together. But when Esther makes a video with Arthur, the hunt for the mysterious Maryse goes viral.
There’s only one person who can help Maddy track down this woman – the one that got away, Joe. Their quest takes them to France, and into the heart of the French Resistance.
When the only way to move forwards is to look back, will this family finally be able to?
I loved this book from the beginning. I immediately felt such empathy for Arthur, struggling with dementia and living with his granddaughter, Hazel, who seems to have reached the end of her patience in her caring role. Arthur is the very picture of a benign old gentleman, a bit confused and totally dependent on the help of others. When I worked in a residential home for the elderly, I easily grew attached to elderly residents like this. However, even in that act of enjoying caring for these men, we’re dismissing so many things about them. We’re almost seeing them like a cute, but battered old teddy bear. I would forget that they were once young like me (I was 20) and that they’d had aspirations for their lives: careers to embark on, love affairs to pursue, and the world to see. That is until war came along and those plans were ripped up to be replaced with roles in the forces, defending Europe against the steady rise of Hitler and his Nazi party. The sacrifices made by men and women at this time shouldn’t be underestimated. They gave up that time where I had the luxury of starting to know myself, to forge an adult identity. I soon realised that the people I was caring for had once been young like I was with all of the same experiences and feelings I did. They’d felt passion, excitement, love, and all the things that bring enjoyment to life. Their old, often broken body, was merely a shell and once I understood this proper connections started to form with residents. I would encourage memory boxes, and displays up around the home showing the resident’s lives so that all carer’s could see and start relating as one human to another instead of carer and patient.
I felt the author captured the confusion and distress of dementia incredibly well. Once his other granddaughter Maddy moves in to look after him along with her daughter, Esther, life does settle into a better pattern for Arthur and he is more relaxed. In the chapters told from Arthur’s point of view, the way he relates to the world is so moving. The author describes the sensation of knowing something, such as his great-granddaughter’s name, but being unable to reach it. Arthur knows the knowledge is there, he just can’t remember where he put it. The frustration of this must be enormous, but with the love and understanding he receives from Maddy and Esther, these absences of knowledge don’t bother him so much. He can let them go in the knowledge the information will return, possibly because he’s being treated with patience and respect. The description of ‘sundowning’ was brilliant, referring to the distressing symptom of increased confusion towards nightfall with insomnia and often pacing up and down as the differences between night and day seem to disappear. The symptom Arthur is finding most distressing is the loss of distinction between different times:
‘He knew his name was Arthur Pettinger and he was ninety-six years old. He also knew he was in his bedroom because on the door was a picture of himself with his name written underneath. Tomorrow, he might not know any of this. Yesterday, he was twenty years old and loading bales of hay onto the back of his father’s tractor.’
Often he’s unsure about who is looking after him, but he knows they do it with such love. Just as he experiences stages of his own life simultaneously, he can experience people in the same way:
‘Maddy Pettinger. Of course, dear, sweet Maddy – his granddaughter. He could see her when she was a small child, maybe about five or six. She was wearing a blue pinafore dress and her hair was in bunches with blue ribbon. A warmth filled his heart’.
The distress seems to come as he remembers a particular woman called Maryse who he met in France when in a mission with Special Operations. There is something about this mission that will not leave his memory and since it must have been very traumatic and emotional that’s not surprising, what is surprising to Maddy is that a woman she has never heard of holds such a huge part of her grandfather’s heart and memory. However, for Arthur, Maryse might have been with him just yesterday and all the feelings still remain, as strong as they were fifty or sixty years before. He can simultaneously be deep in conversation with Maryse only to find her disappeared, and this is the cause of his distress. He is losing her and experiencing deep grief. Over and over again. His way of describing his illness is one of the most apt I’ve ever read. Here he describes how memories and ideas become difficult to extract from the mess in his head. It’s all:
‘muddled up in his mind like a heap of spaghetti and he didn’t know where the strands of thought started. They were a jumbled mess of words and images, fragments of memory and snatches of thought – all knotted up together’.
The sections where we travel back and see the full account of Arthur’s mission into France during WW2 are powerful and moving. It’s not hard to see how feelings were amplified, by the danger they were facing on a daily basis. If you don’t know whether you’ll be alive tomorrow, you want to be sure those you love know you love them. The growing feelings between Maryse and Arthur are plain to see and I was devastated by the scenes where they ended up separated. It’s hard to know whether Arthur’s dementia is stirring up emotions for a love affair unfinished, whether Maryse was left in danger, or if things were finished and he doesn’t remember. This is the worry that granddaughter Maddy has. Her daughter Esther’s normal cooking channel goes viral when she asks for help finding Maryse, but Maddy is struggling over how to handle it. She’s even more cross when Esther approaches her ex-boyfriend Joe to do the investigation. Joe works as an historical investigator so in Esther’s mind he’s the right man to call, but she doesn’t understand the emotions involved. Maddy was broken hearted when their relationship ended, will she be able to lean on him now to help her grandfather? Even if she does, will she be making things worse for Arthur – what if they are too late and Maryse has already passed away?
The resolution, when it came, was not what I expected and actually made me cry. Not just for these two lovers, but for the many individual losses that happen during wartime as people become scattered from those they love. Often making huge sacrifices to keep them safe, such as those made by parents in the novel. It showed me how hard it can be to fully understand what a person with dementia is going through and the significance of what they are saying. Are they distressed because they’ve left something unresolved, or because it’s unresolved in that moment and later they’ll remember again. There is a comfort for family members in realising deep down there’s recognition; they may not be experiencing you in the now, but they might be with your four year old self instead. My grandma, who had dementia for the last two years of her life, once said to me: ‘I can’t go to bed there’s a little girl hanging on my legs’. In the next second she looked at me quite sharply and added: ‘is it you?’ I think it probably was, but a toddler me, back in the early 1970s. She’d made the connection in that moment and in a way knew exactly who I was. For Arthur there are moments when he’s still there, at the farmhouse with Maryse, sitting and talking in the woods, slowly falling in love. I hoped that when he did pass away, that he could live in those moments forever.