Dementia and finding meanings in the chaos

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Author Kate de Goldi tells Rebecca Barry Hill how cracks in the road inspired her latest novel.

Kate de Goldi found a new way of using the alphabet in a novel. Photo / Supplied
Kate de Goldi found a new way of using the alphabet in a novel. Photo / Supplied

During the surreal days after the first Christchurch earthquake in September 2010, Kate de Goldi went for a run along the Avon River's edge. The Wellington author had been staying at her sister's place while they moved their mother, who suffered from Alzheimer's, into professional care. She now lived in a rest home called Santa Maria, near the loop in the river and, as de Goldi passed by, she noticed big cracks in the road.

"I started thinking metaphorically about cracks in the community and the fractures in my mother's head," says de Goldi. Something about the cataclysm of her family's drama, coinciding with the chaos of the natural disaster, struck a chord. The notion of placing the ABC - the ultimate agent of order, and a form in which she'd always wanted to write - into a dementia unit, a place prone to disorder, intrigued her.

"And I was completely enchanted by the new community my mother was in, the residents and the caregivers. Everyone there became like another family."

De Goldi's latest book, The ACB With Honora Lee, with drawings by Gregory O'Brien, is the latest of the author's memorable tales that have won awards over the years. Her previous young adult novel, The Ten PM Question, was the first in New Zealand to win the NZ Post Book of the Year Award and the prize for Young Adult Fiction, as well as being shortlisted for the prestigious Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Perry, The ACB's central character, is the child of busy, inadvertently neglectful parents. She longs for more of a family, and finds it in her grandmother, Honora Lee, and the cast of eccentric residents at her fictional home of Santa Lucia. Fascinated and undaunted by her grandmother's often haphazard comprehension of the world, Perry decides to create a book using the alphabet - or the ACB as Gran might call it - about her world.

D is for Doris, (one of the residents). And Drama Queen.

J is for Jelly, Jewels and Jolly Odd, "because that's what most conversations were like at Santa Lucia", Perry notes.

"I'm quite attracted to children like that, who have a bent way of looking at the world," says de Goldi, who reviews children's books for television and radio.

"Children just watch and are so expert at seeing through adult manoeuvrings to the heart of the matter; to the truth. That's rich territory for story. It's the same with some elderly who, released from social norms, say things like 'you look fat'."

Everyone from Hans Christian Andersen to A.A. Milne and Beatrix Potter have written in the ABC form, so De Goldi knew she'd have to find a refreshing way to play with narrative. Using playful language, twisted turns of phrase, alliteration, rhyme and a fragmented approach to chapters, De Goldi's ACB version is almost like peeling back a child's perception of the world. Whereas Frankie Parsons spoke the made-up language of "Chillun" in The 10 PM Question, Perry regurgitates many of Gran's figures of speech, often with amusing results.

Between the madcap headings are deeper layers of meaning about, essentially, each character's struggle with identity. De Goldi found it interesting that while many of the residents in her mother's rest home suffered short-term memory loss, they had an extraordinary propensity to recall poems and hymns.

"Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing, my Great Redeemer's praise," sings Gran in the book. Elsewhere, the novel tackles tricky subject matter, albeit off the page; Perry collects dead bumblebees, a metaphorical way of dealing with mortality.

The eccentric drawings by Greg O'Brien, a friend of de Goldi's, help to show Perry's take on the world, rather than illustrating scenes.

"There's a naughtiness at the heart of it," says de Goldi. "I like the way Perry has revenge on people by drawing them. I remember acutely that when my granddaughter was furious, she'd paint these pictures of her brother. I love the way children find to express themselves."

It's not the first time de Goldi has tackled mental illness in her writing. In her 1997 book Love, Charlie Mike, the protagonist's grandmother suffered from dementia, and in The 10 PM Question, main character Frankie Parson's neuroses were partly a consequence of his mother's agoraphobia. But The ACB came from a different set of experiences, namely the "awful, drawn-out" process of putting her mother into care, as well as memories of her grandmother, who suffered from the disease and the experiences of her father, who also has dementia.

The book delicately balances the sensitive, tragic nature of mental decline and the comedy that inevitably arises from confusion. But the tone is predominantly uplifting and funny, a testament to the fact that for De Goldi, the disease is simply part of life.

"My father was a lawyer and he thinks his bedroom is his office. The structures of home life bring security and I find that beautiful. My mother always knew who we were, and we'd be doing very intimate acts, cutting fingernails or brushing hair, where the parent becomes the child. It's incredibly lovely but occasionally quite confronting.

"Sometimes, Mum will see a woman go past and she'll say, 'she's crazy'. I can't help but laugh out loud. She'll believe she's at boarding school, chatting with her best friend Cath [and that] they wear each others' clothes. There's this glorious childlike aspect, which is why I wanted to have a connection to a child because the child and the elderly are so aligned. They're outliers in life."

Anyone who has had any experience dealing with dementia in the family will understand the search for meaning in fragments of conversation. It might be a sentence that, for anyone else, will seem completely odd or random. For de Goldi, these fragments are little clues to the person's life.

"It's a question you often ask yourself in order to connect. You take a sentence they say and wonder, what does this tell you about their life? You're always trying to construct meaning.

"You could almost say dementia is like a book and you're trying to complete what they're saying."

The ACB with Honora Lee (Random House $34.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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