Review: Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry

They continued to cope, poorly, with the excretions and secretions of their stepfather’s body, moving from revulsion to pity to anger, and back to revulsion. They were bewildered, and indignant, that a human creature of blood and bone, so efficient in good health, could suddenly become so messy.  Neither Nariman’s age nor his previous illnesses had served to warn them. Sometimes they took it personally, as though their stepfather had reduced himself to this state to harass them. And by nightfall, the air was again fraught with tension, thick with reproaches spoken and silent. (p 68)

Nariman Vakeel is an elderly, retired English professor suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.  He lives in the family home — ironically named Chateau Felicity — with his middle-aged step-children, Jal and Coomy.  Nariman married their mother Yasmin when Jal and Coomy were children, after his family forbid him to marry his true love, Lucy.  He raised them along with a younger half-sister, Roxana.  Coomy is filled with resentment; everyone else walks on eggshells to avoid her bitterness.  Jal feigns obliviousness, tinkering with his hearing aid when tempers flare.

When Nariman falls while out on a walk, Jal and Coomy are quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for him.  Coomy wastes no time tricking Roxana into taking him in.  Roxana and her family live in a smaller flat and struggle to make ends meet, but they are blessed with a more positive outlook on life. Even Roxana’s young sons take things in stride:

The balcony door framed the scene: nine-year-old happily feeding seventy-nine.

And then it struck her like a revelation — of what, she could not say.  Hidden by the screen of damp clothes, she watched, clutching Yezad’s shirt in her hands. She felt she was witnessing something almost sacred, and her eyes refused to relinquish the previous moment, for she knew instinctively that it would become a memory to cherish, to recall in difficult times when she needed strength. (p. 98)

But as weeks pass, the strain takes its toll on everyone.  Coomy takes dramatic steps to keep up the illusion she is unable to care for Nariman.  Jal is silently complicit.  Roxana tries, in vain, to stretch Yezad’s salary to cover the cost of Nariman’s medication.  And Yezad responds to the financial strain through a series of progressively destructive acts aimed at improving their financial situation.  Eventually they hit rock bottom in ways both inevitable and shocking, and are then faced with the challenge of rebuilding what they hold most dear.

I put off reading this book for some time, thinking it might strike too close to home.  My father has Parkinson’s, and last year a medical incident set in motion a series of events culminating in my parents’ long-overdue move to a continuous care retirement community.  Family Matters was indeed painful to read, although I could distance myself from it because the Vakeel family’s situation was very different from mine.  And yet there are valuable messages in this book about the importance of family, and living for today, that are still with me days after finishing the book.


Review: The Seduction of Mrs Pendlebury, by Margaret Forster

Rose Pendlebury and her husband Stanley are an elderly couple, living quietly in a London suburb slowly being taken over by young families.  Rose is a prickly sort, judgmental and set in her ways:

She wasn’t going to let any irritation spoil this lovely park. She was going to sit on a seat with her eyes feasting on all the greenery and the lake and the ducks and the flowers and not be bothered by anything. People were the trouble — if only there were no people, she would be happy.  (p.35)

Stanley goes with the flow, investing considerable energy in placating Rose and preventing the proverbial apple cart from being upset:

Rose had always been contrary. It was part of her way. Just when you thought you’d misunderstood her it all came right in the end. She wasn’t one of your straightforward types. Her mind was like the inside of a car engine, all little nuts and bolts and wires that looked a terrifying tangle until you knew how it worked and which bit operated what. (p. 43)

When Alice and Tony Oram move in next door, Rose instantly judges them as a pretentious couple bent on urban gentrification — the same way she sees other neighbors.  One day while out working in her garden, she hears sounds of a child playing next door.  Slowly, Rose befriends 2-year-old Amy and, even more slowly, Alice.  The Orams turn out to be better sorts than Rose expected, and Alice makes it her personal mission to break down Rose’s inhibitions and improve her outlook.

And that’s what I thought this book was about, so when Rose began to warm up I settled in for a heartwarming story of love and friendship.  But there was a strong dark current running through this book as well.  Alice’s friendship with Rose introduces conflict and stress into her marriage.  Rose’s relationship with her sister-in-law is contentious.  She treats her husband poorly.  Her son moved to Australia, and the implication is that he needed to put distance between himself and his parents.  And all of Alice’s care and concern can only go so far toward rehabilitating Rose.  The story takes a very sad turn, and leaves Rose and Stanley on the cusp of change, their future uncertain.

The Seduction of Mrs Pendlebury was a layered and very well-written character study.  I had to admire Margaret Forster’s characterizations, but the plot fell short.  The “seduction” of Rose was complete about halfway through the book, and the emotional roller-coaster that followed left too many loose ends.

Review: Tirra Lirra by the River, by Jessica Anderson

Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home after being away nearly 40 years.  Well into in her 70s, Nora is  somewhat frail.  The long journey from London to Sydney to northern Australia wears her out; she becomes ill and is cared for by neighbors who were children when she left.  As she moves in and out of sleep, she is flooded with memories:  first of her failed marriage, which was the impetus for leaving the country, and then of her childhood.  Her reminiscences are a way for the reader to get to know Nora.  As the story progresses, Nora retrieves bits and pieces that have long been suppressed, and a more complex portrait emerges.

Nora is the only surviving member of her family, and most of the people she knew as a child have either died or moved away.  She’s a bit crotchety and resents her need for caregivers, even though they also help fill her in on happenings during her absence.  She is treated by one of the town doctors, the son of a woman Nora had admired, but Nora discovers some shocking news about her death.  Nora’s convalescence is also an opportunity for healing and self-discovery, and eventually Nora accepts that she has entered another new phase in her life.

First published in 1978, this 140-page novella is quiet and contemplative, similar to more recent works like Tinkers and Gilead.