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[754] We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas

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” I want you to remember there is more to live for than mere achievement. It is worth something to be a good man. It cannot be worth nothing to do the right thing. ” (Part VI, Ch.8, 594)

A quotation from King Lear prefaces this novel and gives its title, setting the tone right from the beginning. It foreshadows how one’s mind will be stripped naked, identity crumbled, and language blown out of him, leaving behind only the memory of the last words. It’s no secret that this long debut, taken ten years to write, deals with a suffering mind. Spanning six decades from early 1940s, We Are Not Ourselves follows the history of a family, from the impoverished childhood of Eileen Tumulty in an Irish-American household in New York, through her marriage to Edmund Leary and the birth of their son, Connell.

There was something romantic about that, but living with him made his eccentricities curdle into pathologies. What had been charmingly independent became fussy and self-defeating. (Part I, Ch.9, 70)

Scarred by alcoholism of her family in childhood years, Eileen is determined to break away from the turbulent upbringing and lives a life of prestige. She keeps her emotions at bay. Deep inside of her is a sensuousness that she safeguards at all times. his protectiveness makes it difficult for anyone to feel for her. She justifies her existence to herself through tireless work as a nurse, and the equally relentless pursuit of a better life for her family. In a way, she is a character-in-the-make, slowly being refined and polished in the face of tough times. She is angry and frustrated at her husband’s frugality, and, although she wants to show her son affection, it never occurs to her to try to be Connell’s friend. Sometimes her lack of warmth can be appalling. Her great trial will reveal the strength of her uncompromising nature and her capacity for love.

It hadn’t happened for a reason, but they would find something to glean from it anyway. There didn’t have to be a divine plan for there to be meaning in life. People’s lives will be better because of his illness. (Part IV, Ch.57, 382)

Ed Leary is a scientist whose ambition has never been for fancier titles and fatter paychecks—he’s for something unquantifiable and philosophical which, after his passing, becomes a legacy for his son. A sentimental education from a father who seems dorky. While the book’s prime focus is Eileen, the moral lesson is from Ed Leary and his illness. Thomas’s treatment of Leary’s Alzheimer’s is extraordinary. It seems to come upon the reader with the slow realization as it comes upon his wife and son. The novel’s account of the illness and its terrible progress through a life, wrecking a brilliant mind, is unsparing, but never cold. The illness renders Eileen’s awakening to her senses and values in life. The luxury, perfect home she always lusts after is at best only second to her husband’s heart. Thomas creates an intimacy with Ed’s struggle against his own mental dissolution that is intensely moving.

We Are Not Ourselves maintains a ponderous pace with very lyrical prose. While the narrative can be slightly sluggish at times, it is rich in detail and scrutiny. It’s one of the most nuanced portrait of a contemporary family in the face of challenges that can befall us.

620 pp. Simon & Schuster. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[742] Remember Me Like This – Bret Anthony Johnston

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” It was what happened when you spend time near someone who’d suffered the way Laura had: You felt the stranger. You saw the void surrounding her, stranding and diminishing her, and you saw her seeing it, too. Undoubtedly, what everyone experienced around Laura was what she experienced around her poor, ruined son. You only saw the wounds. ” (Ch.21, p.246)

Remember Me Like This delves into the tension and complex dynamics of the Campbell family, which reunites with their son who has disappeared for four years. Despite Justin’s miraculous return, the family struggles to reacquaint itself with normalcy, tiptoeing around their son’s unexplained torments.

The book is very dense; but its beauty is in its complexity, in its characters’ endless search for truth behind Justin’s disappearance. The narrative, which begins with the reunification of the victim and his family, proceeds with multiple perspectives. While the Campbells are dazed with happiness upon his return, as time goes by, they realize no easy endings are coming. The return has become Laura and Eric’s worst nightmare because, of course, while their son was held in the abductor’s apartment, he has been, one can only assume, the victim of unspeakable violence. They are ravaged by the desire to know the truth and the fear of knowing. Justin is glad to be home, but he carries with him four years of damage: anger, abandonment and isolation. The Campbells abide the therapist’s order to avoid broaching about Justin’s captivity for fear of further traumatizing him. But the awkwardness and strained silence suggest that they are incapable of giving voice to their most lurid fears. They tread lightly, tiptoe gingerly, until their reticence erodes what joy they have managed to revive.

Johnston strives to hold back all the juicy details of Justin’s life with his captor that would place this book among the huge canon of thrillers. The closest to fulfilling one’s voyeuristic pleasure is when Justin confides in his brother at the spot where he was abducted. To his brother’s question that alludes to his “away-life” Justin says, “Is that a clever way of asking if he raped me?” In a way, Johnston, using his authorial silence, keeps his characters and reader at a narrative distance in order to keep Justin safe from all interior access. This induces a very powerful moral standard that rebuffs voyeuristic curiosity. Instead of inventing gruesome facts or conjuring a courtroom scene, he redirects the attention into a more private sphere, safe from public prying—the house and hearts of the victim’s family.

There’s Laura, whose fear and guilt have shut down her life. She and her husband have drifted apart. She desires to erase her identity as a mother by signing up to volunteer with her maiden name. Eric has an affair with his friend’s wife Tracy. Cecil the grandfather conceives his own plan to bring the abductor to justice. Griff, wallowed in guilt, believes his argument with his brother is the cause of Justin’s leaving. As their perspectives intertwine, Johnston’s characters are fully realized. All their mistakes, blind spots, and secrets become undone and raw.

Remember Me This Way is far from a mystery or thriller despite the buildup of tension. It is an uplifting portrait of a family in crisis, and how they struggle to overcome it by love and acceptance.

373 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]