Have you ever wondered how many times a day you say thank you?
This week I have been determined to catch up on some of my outstanding book reviews. Don’t judge me for focusing on the easier, slimmer ones! I promise I will one day soon, very soon, write up my thoughts on The Pea Pickers and Square Haunting.
At only 160 pages, Gratitude is more novella than novel, but in true novella style, it packs an emotional punch far beyond it’s slim design.
De Vigan tenderly and delicately describes Michka’s slide into aphasia, a condition often brought on by stroke, that affects the production and/or comprehension of speech. Michka is very aware that she is losing her words. They are just no longer there. She is also losing confidence and her balance.
So this is what lies ahead for you, Michk’: little steps, little naps, little teas, little trips, little visits. A shrunken, diminished life, but a perfectly ordered one.
Her back story includes a lovely young woman, Marie. They are not related but they have known each other since Marie was a young child living in the apartment above Michka’s. In the absence of other family, they take care of each other. When Michka finally decides she can no longer live at home alone, Marie helps her find a nursing home. There Michka meets a truly special young man, Jérôme, the speech therapist.
Behind the blurred vision and uncertain movements, the stooped or bent posture….I look for the young man or woman they once were. I look at them and think: he or she too once loved, shouted, enjoyed sex or plunging into water, ran until they were out of breath, climbed stairs four at a time, danced the night away. She or he too caught trains, took the metro, went on country walks or to the mountains, drank wine, slept in, talked nineteen to the dozen.
That’s the bare bones.
The magic lies in de Vigan’s ability to weave in a satisfying life story for all three in such a short time. From Michka’s war time experience, to Marie’s neglected childhood and relationship woes, to Jérôme’s issues with his father. All three have debts of gratitude to repay. They all have something to learn from each other and to give to each other.
I work with words and silence. The unsaid. I work with shame and secrets and regrets. I work with absence, vanished memories and the memories that resurface at the mention of a name, an image, a perfume. I work with old pain and pain that endures. Confidences.
The nature of ageing in our modern world is considered by all three, especially the prickly issue of how do we care for our elderly with respect and dignity when they can no longer live at home. It seems ridiculous that this is something we actually have to consider, but given the recent revelations about Australian aged care homes, it’s obviously something we do have to look at more closely. The French have their own issues around equity of care, but one thing that shines brightly in Gratitude is the positive effect of properly trained, sympathetic staff on the well-being of the elderly in their care. Michka’s dream sequences about militant-style auditions and appraisals for her nursing home, reflect the natural fear and helplessness that many elderly people feel at this time of major change, but thankfully, did not reflect her reality. We still have a long way to go to make this process, that will come to many of us one day, a more humane and graceful transition.
Gratitude was a delicate, almost too brief excursion into these three lives. Three lives full of individual nuance and complication; three lives that find comfort in their shared communion. Although they were brought together by chance, their capacity for kindness and thankfulness ensures friendship and compassion when they least expect it. Keep a tissue handy!
This turned out to be a lovely, gentle introduction into the world of Delphine de Vigan. I’ve had Nothing Holds Back the Night on my TBR for ages. Books that deal with mother issues ‘with acute self-awareness and marvellous sympathy‘ will always tempt me. Perhaps it will find its way on to my 20 Books of
Summer Winter list.
We laugh, we drink. And in us the wounded, The hurt go by; we owe them memory and life. For living Is knowing that every instant of life is a golden sunbeam On a sea of darkness, it's knowing how to say thank you.
François Cheng, Enfin le royaume
Where do the words go? The words that resist, Withdraw, The ones that argue And poison [...] Where do the words go? The ones that make and unmake, us, That save us When all else goes.
La Grande Sophie
- De Vigan was born on the 1st March 1966 in Boulogne-Billancourt, France
What still surprises me, stuns me even, what can still take my breath away after ten years in the job, is how long childhood pain lasts. It leaves a burning, incandescent scar in spite of the years. It can’t be erased.
I look at my old people….They tell me their distant memories….Their parents have been dead for fifteen, twenty, thirty years, but the pain of the child they once were is still there. Intact. You can see it clearly on their faces and hear it in their voices. I see it pulse in their bodies and their veins. A closed circuit.
- The beautiful, fragile Michka.
Favourite or Forget:
- This one will stay with me a long time. I suspect I will want to reread it before passing it onto friends.
Book: Gratitude Author: Delphine De Vigan Translator: George Miller ISBN: 9781526618856 Publisher: Bloomsbury Date: 4th May 2021 (First published March 2019) Format: Hardcover