This is a deftly-written and highly moving account of the effects of dementia on an elderly woman, May of the title, and those around her, including staff at the nursing home where she is resident. The story is actually centred on solving the mystery of a figure from May’s past that no-one around her can recall; and all wonder if he is merely a figment of her rapidly disassembling mind.
Krüger uses two specific narrative devices to help convey her story and subject matter. Whole chapters are assigned to a number of unique characters - including May - each competing for our attention and wonderfully depicted. The narrative also shifts back and forth through decades, helpfully indicated by a date at the top of each chapter, which very much reflects one of the disorienting aspects of the condition: the unravelling of time itself. These alternative perspectives on May’s life allow us to see her at her worst, but also as caring wife, mother and friend, before the disease takes hold and her mental deterioration commences. Here is a central character that could be any of us; the familiar settings and landmarks of an ordinary northern town, Preston, help further ground the work in the domestic, the everyday, and give it a real authenticity.
Beyond structural experimentation, Krüger’s talent lies in the assured command of her prose. Short, rhythmic sentences relay the steady beat of conscious thought, allowing her to show subtle differences between her characters, whilst also unifying them. In May’s own chapters, the formal constraints of syntax and grammar are abandoned and prose becomes verse: “but I remember the boy He/runs into the trees. He doesn’t have words.” These passages are not only beautifully written, they also contain all the clues required to assemble multiple interpretations of the novel’s conclusion. By the time it ends, the reader is very much left to reflect on the ways in which the past comes back to haunt each of us, despite our best efforts to bury it - which is especially difficult for those, like May, at the mercy of such a debilitating disease as dementia.
About the reviewer
Paul Taylor-McCartney is currently Head of Secondary Teacher Education at Warwick University. He has enjoyed a long and varied teaching career in the discipline of English/Theatre Studies and is following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University. His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and 20th century literary criticism.