Fourteen year old Katia is the only child of Donn and Tess. For three weeks her mother and she will be living with ‘the witch’; otherwise known as Eleanor, Katia’s 90 year old grandmother who is suffering from vascular dementia who requires around the clock care. This is normally taken care of by Lotus, the home help, but she is going to Malaysia because her daughter is getting married. Eleanor lives in a beautiful, slightly run down home that Katia refers to as The Gingerbread House, because it reminds her of the witches house in Hansel and Gretel.
Tess has just been made redundant from her work in the advertising industry and is going to replace Lotus in an attempt to earn some money and see if she could become Eleanor’s help full time, something she is resistant to, as being her mother-in-law’s physical carer is not what she wanted to do with her life. But the family can’t survive on what Donn brings in as a freelance journalist, so Tess’s hands are tied.
Katia is very observant for a fourteen year old girl. There isn’t much that escapes her attention.
Do you know something? I sometimes think that my parents imagine that just because I cannot talk doesn’t mean I cannot hear. I hear everything. Katia is all ears.
She shares a very intense visual of what her grandmothers body looks like, in great detail, which is none too flattering. She is aware of her mother’s drinking getting heavier and heavier as the weeks go on. She sees how her mother is quaking under the responsibility of taking care of Eleanor, but seems helpless to offer her mother anything but emotional support. But she does share her thoughts of the situation with Charlotte, the spider living in the tree house, named after one of her favourite literary characters from Charlotte’s Web. Literature is a very important part of Katia’s life. Something she shared with her parents, whom are artsy kinds of people.
Beaufoy isn’t afraid to take the reader down the very real pathway of life caring for an older person, exploring all the aspects that make it such a difficult, often thankless job. But the writing is so beautiful that one often forgets to be revolted or horrified and instead is entranced with problems such as the finer points of giving an elderly person a bath for example. Katia shares her conversations that often follow no discernible thread with her grandmother. She also shares that she wants to have conversations with her mother in her dreams. Little hints are scattered through the prose that one so often skips over, but there is a mystery involved within this novel, but its revelation leaves the reader feeling like they have had a blow to the belly.
There is a certain sadness and yet an undeniable relief at the closing of the story. It’s not a very long novel, but it is filled with beautiful turns of phrase. It unravels and slowly reveals the truth and the horror of life gone wrong. This piece is glorious and gentle, brutal and direct. It is well worth the time to read.