Nestled among cherry trees in a picturesque country garden, the Gingerbread House resembles an illustration from an old-world storybook. But beware! For in the fairy-tale, that's where the witch lives...
Away from the city, with no distractions, the Gingerbread House seems like the perfect place to start work on a novel. That's what former advertising copywriter Tess thinks when she goes there to live with Eleanor, her aged mother-in-law. But Eleanor is suffering from dementia, and caring for her proves tougher than Tess could ever have imagined: feeling increasingly isolated, her only comfort is wine o'clock and weekend visits from her husband. Meanwhile her teenage daughter Katia is helpless to intercede; in the end she can only watch as things fall apart and a tragedy even closer to home surfaces.
While normally I gobble up new releases by Kate Beaufoy almost as soon as they hit the shelves, I found myself putting The Gingerbread House on the long finger - I was scared to read it, you see.
The subject matter surrounds an elderly woman with quickly advancing dementia, her daughter in law, Tess, who is caring for her, and is told from the perspective of teenager Katia who watches events unfold in her granny's picturesque cottage - which she has dubbed The Gingerbread House.
Dementia is a subject I have written on myself - my last novel 'Still You' told the story of a woman with Alzheimer's. It's a topic incredibly close to my heart - and just last year I lost my beloved grandmother to this illness after a 12 year battle. So reading anything on this matter is something still very raw for me.
But so many people were raving about this book, and having read Kate's previous books (Liberty Silk is one of my all time top ten reads) I knew she is a writer that tackles tough issues sensitively.
So in I went. Initially, I will be honest, I was taken aback by the very raw, very real, very honest depiction of someone with dementia. I felt uncomfortable reading the description of the older woman, her body almost sinking into itself as the disease progressed. It was uncomfortable because it is so honest and it brought back painful memories - but it also helped tackle the taboos that do exist around this condition and the reality of life for many, many carers.
I pushed through those early pages - and I am so very glad I did. This becomes a story about love, loss, the strain of caring for an elderly relative, how strange it all seems through the eyes of a teenager. Tess is not a selfless carer - she is real. She is doing her best. But she struggles. It was so good to read of a carer who is honest - who is not painted as some saint who never gets the urge to run away from it all.
Dementia itself is depicted in all its sad, funny, gross, repetitive, tender, glory. There are some lines which are just so completely poignant that they made me catch my breath.
But it is also darkly funny. To love and care for someone with dementia, you do need to develop quite the dark sense of humour - or else you will simply crumple under the pressure of it all. I laughed out loud on several occasions.
Fourteen year old Katia makes an exceptional narrator - her voice is strong and perfectly drawn.
And as for the house itself? As with all Kate's writing - the location in which her books are set become characters just like the people who walk around them. The Gingerbread House - its dark rooms, its tatty decor, its beautiful gardens all jump off the page so that you almost feel as if you are there in the oppressive brown study, watching the David Attenborough documentaries with granny.
I will be honest - there may be some people who may find this book too honest - too raw. But for me it was like looking inside my own head, my own feelings and my own heartache over a situation I cannot control.
It also delivers a twist that leaves the reader reeling.
I highly recommend picking up this book - I sped read through it and loved it. I would, however, keep a box of tissues close by.
The Gingerbread House is published by Black & White.
I purchased my own copy of this novel.
For the love of books
A good writer must be an avid reader. I'll be posting reviews of some of the books I'm reading. Disclaimer: I'm not a book blogger - I'm just a reader. These are books I've chosen to read for fun.