Summer Fiction Treat
with Surprising Caregiving Twist
by Leslie Eckford
Normally, when I mention favorite books on MindfulAging, it is to direct the reader to some of the powerful and thought provoking non-fiction books that have great meaning to us who are in families dealing with caring for our elders who are aging at home. Topping my list presently are Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, With a Little Help from Our Friends: Creating Community as We Grow Older by Beth Baker and my personal touchstone, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. Whenever I have a “why am I doing this again?” moment, I connect with Roz Chast’s completely honest, laugh out loud funny and heart breaking book to remember. All of these books have helped me in different ways to sort out my approach to the perils and the rewards of helping my parents stay right where they want to, in their own home.
This post however is directed toward another passion of mine, reading fiction. I am lucky to live in a community that boasts an absolutely splendid library system. Whenever I get a chance, I go to my local branch and grab a book to read at night before bed. This is part of my ritual to ease my mind with my daily mantra “it is what it is,” to let go of whatever caregiving issues I have been consumed with that day. I find that escaping into fiction allows that problem solving part of my brain to rest and renews my imagination and curiosity.
Recently, I was between my summer reads (binging on Alice Munro short story collections such as Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, The View from Castle Rock and Friend of My Youth) and went to the library for something a little different. I found a book that had a positive blurb by one of my most treasured fiction writers today, Kate Atkinson. So, without reading what the story was about, I checked it out.
When I got the chance to start reading The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, I initially started to chuckle. The story is about a widowed, elderly woman living alone in her nostalgic home in a remote coastal town in Australia who is just getting in that phase of needing a little help. Only I would pick a book to escape from my near constant thoughts of caregiving that is about …an elder and a caregiver! That only lasted for a few minutes,though, as this well crafted and engaging story draws the reader into Ruth’s (the main elderly character’s) worldview. Weaving in Ruth’s unusual upbringing with her family in Fiji, her first love, her enduring marriage and grief as a widow, McFarlane creates a well rounded character who has approached life and its failures and disappointments philosophically. When a mysterious caregiver (“carer” in the Australian parlance) shows up at her door unannounced, things begin to twist and turn. I won’t give the plot away, but I will admit to you that at times I could not read this book at night. It isn’t that the story is graphic or gory, but McFarlane expertly shapes an atmosphere of dread and suspense of what is going to happen next.
Th Night Guest has a beautiful subtext of what the core thoughts of an older person are as they discover that that they are old; how do they find meaning in their now restricted existence after losing the significant relationships in their lives? It also bravely explores our underlying fears and projections about the motivations of a “carer” to do the work that they do. Do they really love the work and come to love the person that they are caring for? Or does frustration, anger or even subterfuge play a role? The caregiver character in The Night Guest, Frida, will challenge your beliefs about this and ultimately is the most fascinating and human role in the book.