True Stories

Michael Irwin

  • Have the men had enough? by Margaret Forster
    Chatto, 251 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3400 3
  • Aurora’s Motive by Erich Hackl, translated by Edna McCown
    Cape, 117 pp, £10.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 224 02584 8
  • The Open Door by Alan Sillitoe
    Grafton, 358 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 246 13422 4

Fiction derives from facts as paper derives from trees, but in either case the transformation can be left incomplete. While many a novel of the past twenty years or so has hinted or advertised its fictionality, others have asserted in various ways their entanglement with real life. The three works to be discussed here are of this latter kind, fibrous with circumstance. The characteristic could be seen alternatively as a strength or a limitation. It suggests relevance, authenticity: a real-life problem has been addressed, a true story transliterated. These are no mere flights of the imagination. But to claim so much, even by implication, is to invite a potentially damaging counter-argument. Why has ‘imagination’ been invoked at all? Would not the work in question be yet more authoritative and persuasive as frank documentary or autobiography?

At the centre of Have the men had enough?, a relentlessly monocentric work, is Grandma, who suffers from senile dementia. In the moderate stage of the illness she still remembers the names and faces of those close to her, and can look after herself physically. But the degeneration that is diagnosed as inevitable gradually drains away her personality and her surviving levels of competence. In an intermediate phase her memory has virtually gone: ‘She does not know if she has eaten recently or what she ate. She could not recognise a comb, a brush, a jug. She cannot put her shoes on or a cardigan.’ She can still walk and talk, and is continent. But the doctor can affirm that she will lose all these capacities. As his prognostications are proved correct, Margaret Forster charts the efforts of Grandma’s family to cope with their growing problem.

Most of the practical responsibility falls to three female members of that family. Of her two sons, Stuart, a policeman, thinks she should be in a council home: ‘Grandma had paid her taxes and was entitled and that was that.’ Charlie, a successful broker, is willing to pay the rent for the house where she lives, and to hire a variety of helpers or minders, but it is his sister Bridget, a nurse, who shares that house and looks after her with tireless devotion. For practical help she must rely largely on Charlie’s wife, Jenny, and his 17-year-old daughter, Hannah.

These two tell the story, in alternating chapters, from their different perspectives. Hannah is fond of her grandmother and, for a time at least, takes a simple moral line: of course she belongs to the family and must be personally cared for. Why, indeed, should she not live with them? Jenny, less personally attached to her mother-in-law, and categorically unwilling to share a house with her, is yet full of respect for her, and anxious to offer her as comfortable a way of life as circumstances will permit. But circumstances permit less and less as Grandma’s condition deteriorates. Who is to care for her when Bridget takes a holiday? It is difficult to find a temporary companion, even at £250 a week. Various homes for the elderly are inspected and found wanting. In any case the best of them will not admit the severely demented. What are the facilities on offer in such cases? What is the kindest course of action?

Have the men had enough? seems to provide a complete if depressing answer to such questions, but its comprehensiveness depends on the sympathy-shrivelling datum that the family are sufficiently well-heeled to be able to choose from the full spectrum of available possibilities, private as well as public. Charlie thinks nothing of shelling out £20,000 a year on his mother. Many a reader would envy his plight.

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