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A warts and all examination of problems facing relatives in caring for the elderly

By Margaret Madden

The Gingerbread House is home to 90-year-old Eleanor, a former actress who is now suffering from dementia. Tess has taken on the task of minding her mother-in-law while her regular carer takes a much-needed break.

Her 14-year-old daughter, Katia, is by her side as she enters the unknown territory of caring for the elderly.

Her journalist husband must return to work, as money is tight, and Katia fears her mother may crumble under the pressure. Isolated, with no transport, the strain is apparent from the start.

However, Katia cannot give advice. The book-loving teenager has "lost the power of speech" and only communicates with EB White's beloved fictional spider, Charlotte. This exquisite novel comes in at just under 200 pages, yet is as powerful and poignant as it gets.

Caring for the elderly in their own homes is rarely discussed.

Through Katia's eyes, we see that the stubborn, demanding and often abusive elderly are victims of their age or disease; they once lived full and meaningful lives with their loved ones but are now shells of their former selves. They crave routine, require constant attention and affection. Just like infants, they cannot fend for themselves.

Kate Beaufoy has addressed a difficult subject but has done it with grace. By using a child-narrator, the story is given a new perspective.

Katia is silently observant yet extremely astute. She sees her grandmother in her current state and struggles to visualise her as she appears in the fading photographs in the old woman's bedroom.

"She looks so scary - like a skull against the pillows - and when she takes her teeth out, her mouth is like a gaping black hole." She sees the former beauty at her absolute worst and silently cheers her mother on as she deals with difficult circumstances. "I can almost hear Mama's heartbeat accelerate. It's funny, isn't it, that a grown person can be afraid of a 90-year-old little old lady? But mama has reason to be fearful. Granny is surprisingly strong."

This is a small novel, with a huge heart. There is beauty to be found amongst the desperation and the muted voice of Katia is innocent yet brave. She blends fact with fiction and the lines become blurred. Beaufoy has created a stunning and sensual read, which may just break even the hardest of hearts. Highly recommended.

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