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[754] We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas


” 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]