May is a novel about dementia. There have been a few of them recently, most notably Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon and Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey. A protagonist whose memory is addled by old age is a smart choice for a writer to make in a literary environment that remains obsessed with, among other things, the unreliable (and usually female) narrator. You cannot get much less reliable than a dementia patient. Every author who makes that choice, however, must then contend with an implicit charge of exploitation: dementia is not a personality trait, but an illness, and one that can cause emotional trauma to both the person who has it and the people that love the patient. How do you write about someone caught in the grip of that fatal confusion without making the reader’s interest in the terrible minutiae feel prurient? And how do you make your character’s illness integral to the mystery (because dementia novels, like all novels about memory, are fundamentally mysteries) in a way that doesn’t read as cynical? How, in other words, do you avoidwriting tragedy porn?
Kruger’s answer is, in part, to focalise the novel through characters other than May herself. Although the back cover says that the book is set over the course of a single day, chapters flash back to 1957 and forward to 2007, told by May’s husband Arthur, daughter Karen, grandson Alex, and carer Afsana. Each of these people, of course, has their own story. Through them, the reader tries to unravel May’s obsession, in her care home in 2000, with a mysterious red-haired boy who might be a figure from her past or might be a figment of her imagination. It’s unfortunate, given the title of the book, that the character and narrative arc I found most compelling wasn’t May’s at all; it was that of Afsana, her caretaker, whose background is revealed to us slowly and subtly, and is all the scarier for that. There is a whole novel – a longer and more interesting novel, actually – in Afsana, a girl of mixed Anglo-Pakistani heritage whose white English mother and devout Muslim father both seem keen to keep her in her place; who grasps at freedom when it’s offered her, despite the fact that it comes in the form of her geography teacher when she is only seventeen; whose marriage to that teacher has not only isolated her from her family, but has failed to provide her with support and understanding in return for what she has lost. It is extremely impressive that Kruger manages to convey this entire backstory without ever saying any of it out loud: we learn everything from small details of gesture and address and brief flashes of memory. But the technical skill with which she constructs Afsana’s story makes it all the more disappointing that it is clearly designed as a supporting narrative to the main tale of May, her family, and the mystery of the red-haired boy.
That mystery isn’t much of a one, and it’s resolved in the final few pages in a way that feels perfunctory. The fragmentation of May’s narrative voice on the page – her sections are typeset in a manner that recalls the poetry of e.e. cummings – does what it’s meant to do, in that it is a physical manifestation of her crumbling psyche, but since playful typography is a literary technique at least two hundred and fifty years old, it can’t really carry the weight of the whole book. What we are left with is the love of May and Arthur, which is sweet but doesn’t have any peculiarities in it that make it seem the natural focus of a story, and the question of whether Alex will ever come into his own, although it’s not clear that there’s really anything wrong with him other than a general aimlessness. If only, if only, the book had been called Afsana instead.