Regular readers may know that I’m hopeless in the face of the word ‘epic’. It’s catnip to me: I simply must buy a book that throws it around on the cover. But it’s a vague word, and at my most cynical I do wonder if it simply means ‘long.’ Matthew Thomas’s debut novel took 10 years to write, so surely deserves the label in one sense at least. But it is emotionally epic, narratively epic? Can a simple domestic tragedy be an epic – or perhaps is there nothing more epic than the tale of the human soul as it faces what life throws at it?
The novel tells the story of Eileen Tumulty, daughter of alcoholic Irish immigrants to New York, desperate to create a better life for herself – a life of space, success, education… frankly a life of social climbing her way to the admiration of others (a must-have of a house purchase is the impression it makes from the street). But life gets in the way: the scientist husband, full of potential, refuses to make the career choices that will get her the progress she craves. And that’s before his behaviour starts to change, becoming strange and tense. It’s only a 1/6th of the way through the book that we learn the reason: early onset Alzheimer’s. The rest of the book drives the relentless downward spiral, denying the reprieve and reversal that the novel reader eternally hopes for.
The pacing of the book is uneasy. You race through Eileen’s formative early life, and start to wonder when we’ll reach the present where we slow down (the answer is, around the stage of diagnosis.) More damagingly, no one in the book is sympathetic – not Eileen, her down-sliding husband, or her narcisstic son Connell. I feel like it’s going for Franzen’s trick in The Corrections of making you root for a lot of selfish, nasty people – but that’s why Franzen is a genius, and frankly Thomas doesn’t pull this off. You’re more of a cool observer to the albeit understandable self-interested characters. And cool is the word: Ed’s decline is unfolded oh-so-gradually, piece by painful piece from brilliant young man to care home patient.
But cool is a dangerous game, and for me, it falls into the trap of being too cold and depressing. There is, however, a flare of tender brilliance, right at the end, when Eileen goes back to the old house that she struggled so hard to leave for a better neighbourhood, now owned by an Indian family she always looked down on. It gives her a flash of understanding: that what was important all along, all the time she was striving for more, was the family she already had. But rather than this being a hollow realisation it’s life affirming: she’s had what she was after all along; she’s achieved the ultimate goal.
Ultimately these glimpses of warmth and hope are too rare for an enjoyable reading experience. Why should a book about Alzheimers be enjoyable, you ask? Shouldn’t its quality, its exploration of humanity, be more important? Probably. But the family-epic format makes this bleak, and unlike the big reviewers and the Guardian Debut Novel award panel, I just didn’t have the heart for it. Ten points for impressiveness, especially in a debut – smooth prose balanced over hundreds of pages, a tight control on the characters and the narrative of fairly relentless disappointment and decline – four points for a book I was happy to keep picking up for 640 pages.