When I Was Young & In My Prime / Alayna Munce
Roberts Creek, BC: Nightwood Editions, c2005.
This is a gorgeous read, a novel comprised of a mixture of prose and poetry, all presented in powerful, engaging language. A young woman watches her grandparents decline, mentally and physically. The changes that time brings to each individual as well as to their marriage all fall under her discerning eye.
The structure of the book includes monologues by various characters. It's not always immediately obvious who is speaking so the reader must pay attention, must involve themselves in decoding and deciphering the action. This sense of being slightly off balance mirrors the content of the book, the confusion of Alzheimer's but also the confusion of simply being young and not knowing what to do in life, or of being old and forced to transition away from what you know.
The narrative is intermingled with bits of poetry, dialogues, lines from a pamphlet explaining Alzheimer's, lists, diary entries and suchlike. It creates an unsettling feeling, a feeling of casting about for a firm perspective. But the entire point is, there isn't one.
Munce explores the nature of memory, the ways in which we cement our recollections and make them a part of our identity -- how we each share in our personal histories, as the centre of our own circle which then overlaps with so many others. One event can be kaleidoscopic, with each player holding their own version in mind. It's also a meditation on how fragile and fleeting this memory can be -- what happens when we begin to lose it? Who do we become? And what becomes of a shared past if the people implicated in the past are no longer there to hold it?
There is a sense of how these issues affect both the grandparents and the narrator in this story. Earlier incarnations of both grandparents appear, their interior lives revealed; but the focus on identity, memory, and time also relates to the granddaughter's life and marriage. The narrative, themes and structure are braided into a whole, held together by a powerful sense of love between all three characters. It's very moving, both in its subject matter and the beautiful writing.
There is one section that just caught me, a description of the world and our uncertain tenancy:
High Park, a walk on my way to work.
Leaves at their peak, sunlight pouring profligate
from bluest sky. Luminous oranges, rusts and yellows on all
sides as I walk, scuba diver among vibrant reefs....
Lately the smallest thing --
...can hold me firmly, perfectly in place for a whole afternoon,
like a paperweight.
That we are here at all (even the words we and here -- even
words) seems fantastical....
There is nothing that is not exotic.
We're all, all of us, just visiting.
It's a wonderfully complex read, and I know on a second run through I will catch much more of the nuance. It was challenging and yet rewarding, an excellent discovery.