Tuesday, 14 July 2015

We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves is a family epic that spans three generations of Irish Immigrants living in Brooklyn in the post war years. As a child, Eileen was mystified by her charismatic Irish father and cold, unaffectionate mother. Each turning to alcohol at some point to endure their lives, school-aged Eileen takes management of the household; cooking, cleaning, bundling her inebriated parents into their separate bedrooms. Her Catholic upbringing and turbulent family train her from an early age for the vocation that she will grow up to fit into- nursing.

The bulk of the narrative follows Eileen’s adulthood with her husband, brilliant neuroscientist and thoroughly respected community college teacher Ed Leary. Introduced as blind dates at a New Year's Eve party, their attraction is instant and mutual and it's not long before they're married. As a new graduate he seems luminous, filled with light and life and brilliance, and they seem happy. Properly, Hollywood film happy. They have a son- a hard won son in a family troubled by miscarriages and Ed adores him, though Eileen feels strangely excluded- removed from the bond her son and his father share. Eventually Eileen becomes frustrated by her husband’s lack of ambition- he seems to have no aspiration to rise through the ranks at work, to move to a more prestigious role at fancier NYU or to re-locate from their increasingly multicultural neighbourhood. Always with her sights set on the next life goal, Eileen sees the plush furniture and sleek furs of some of her friends and former acquaintances and longs for an equally impressive standard of living.

Towards middle age, at the peak of his modest-by-choice career, Ed starts to change. Slowly, at first. He’s cruel sometimes, obsessive. His periods of frantic, desperate work are followed by long periods of sullenness or violent outbursts. He yells at Connell, his son, he starts listening to opera around the clock. It gradually dawns on the reader at the same pace that it occurs to Eileen that her husband’s increasingly erratic and uncharacteristic behaviour might be down to something more than over work or a mid-life crisis. We find out early in the narrative that it’s early onset Alzheimer’s, its voracious progress through Ed’s body and brain is ruthless, but never insensitive in its telling. Ed’s character is revealed all the more clearly through his gallant battle with the disease- we understand him more as his understanding slips away.

It’s a devastating but beautiful book that really brings home the commitment and sacrifice it takes to persevere with a marriage knowing that it will just get worse and worse, that the person you married is gone forever. The worst parts are the occasional, more lucid days of Ed’s illness, where Eileen glimpses shadows of the husband she remembers in the ruined body that he’s become. Widowhood has a name, divorcée has a name. There’s no name for what Eileen becomes.

The book really makes the reader think about the fragile delicacy of the human brain and the fine thread that anchors our memories and personalities to us. It’s a complex and emotional book about grief and sacrifice, shouldering or shirking responsibilities, the need to keep buying grander houses and newer cars, earning bigger wages and gathering more respect, rather than being happy with what we have. I really liked Eileen as a character, and I understood her need to better herself, to reward herself for her hard work and to luxuriate in the things that she’d earned. I suppose it’s inbuilt into first and second generation immigrants, the need to improve, to climb and to prove you belong. But it’s clear that she’d do it all again differently in hindsight, and it’s the hindsight that’s so heartbreaking.

Eileen is a brilliant creation- she begins as a bright, attractive and strong willed nurse that’s ardently ambitious, strong willed as single minded. It feels an act though- she suppresses so much of her own emotions, coming across sometimes as cold and unfeeling. Her true test comes later in the book, and the reader forgives all. It’s devastating to watch her struggle with her husband’s illness, desperately holding off the moment when she must relinquish control. It’s hard to watch the subconscious guilt and shame that she’s carried around for years catch up to her later, when she becomes buried under worry, rattling around in a too-big house with a son on the other side of the country. As a character, Connell is possibly less realised than either of his parents, but he his perhaps characterised by this lack of character, at least in a moral fibre and personality sort of way. He struggles to find his identity and it’s only really in maturity that he learns to face who he is. I’d like to know more about Connell- the son that was so close to his father, so understood by him that eventually became so horrified at the thought of what his father became.

It’s strange that in a novel so full of degeneration, desperation and sadness, that it’s not an especially downbeat book. It’s even guiltily and unexpectedly funny in places. It’s about the unnavigable, unknowable, suck-it-and-see quality of life that everyone experiences. There’s no guidebook or game plan, and degenerative diseases aside, there’s no telling the direction a life can take. Sometimes two lives lived together can diverge along different routes. It’s uplifting in a way, because the take home message is about living for today and enjoying the small things, about savouring love and life and not taking things for granted. It's about learning not to listen to regrets, because it's impossible to take back what was done at the time- especially if decisions were made for the right reasons and in good faith.

Simply an incredible debut- a sensitive and emotionally involving study of a small, ordinary family as they try to keep their heads above the water. There is some truly beautiful writing in this novel, many lines that stand out in their punishing clarity, even from prose of such quality. 

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