Life is not a beach

Life is not a beach

Jefferson Chase looks at a poigniant portrayal of family life
Jefferson Chase

22 January 2010

Publication: Issue 85

Memory, like music, is an often melancholy pleasure. Why is it that we’re often drawn – for instance in quiet moments over a dram of whisky – to think back upon past times we regret losing, or even regret experiencing at all?

I don’t have an answer to that question. But I do know that I felt much the same way reading Patrick Gale’s sadly seductive 2001 novel Rough Music.

The story revolves around a seemingly normal family that pays two holiday visits to a coastal town in Southwest England – once during the 1960s and again more than 30 years later when the mother has developed Alzheimer’s.

That second visits dredges up memories that suggest something not at all happy has been buried in the past. Something the family patriarch – a prison warden – senses in their holiday abode.

John went directly to the kitchen, poured himself a splash of Scotch and downed it in one needy swig. Then he poured himself a second, longer one, with some ice and took it back to the sofa. All at once that other house, that other time, were here about him…It stirred up much, however, that he would have rather left untroubled and unremembered.

Shaken and stirred, John realises that this holiday is going to be anything but the proverbial walk on the beach.

For one thing, his wife Frances is incrementally drifting off into mental decrepitude, causing a stir at a concert of classical songs they jointly attend.

He sniffed and he saw she was crying. She had always been charmingly sentimental, crying easily at carols or songs that evoked a happy time. How sweet, he thought, squeezing her hand. She’s thinking about us. Then he realized the words sang of betrayal and of love as a long, hard slog of a journey.

John’s family is full of potential explosive secrets. His daughter Poppy isn’t who they all pretend she is, and his son Will is having a homosexual affair with his brother, and John’s son-in-law Sandy.

But the deceptions and self-deception gradually unravel when confronted with the spectacle of a mind slowly breaking down in its entirety.

Frances confirmed that something was wrong by saying, rather briskly, that bed was the best place for her…Will took the picnic things off Sandy and, mind-reading, returned from the kitchen with the Scotch bottle and three glasses.

‘I had no idea she had got so bad,’ Sandy told Will as they sat on the veranda. ‘Poppy’s been making out she’s just a bit confused.’

‘Poppy’s in denial.’

It’s masterful the way Gale interweaves the themes of mental trickery and mental helplessness, and his depiction of Frances’ disease is chillingly believable, meriting comparison to the great Mordecai Richler’s Alzheimer’s novel Barney’s Version.

What a terrible fate it is to be denied those things, including a personal history, that make up an individual human personality and be turned into a wailing, frustrated, permanently confused bundle of biological needs.

Perhaps that is one reason why we’re drawn to our memories, however inevitably bittersweet they may be. Without them, it seems, we are nothing.

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