It seems only fitting that I resume my book notes with Mathew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves (WANO), seeing as the book is about family (complete with its burdens of keeping up traditions & caring for its members), and forgetting (the state life reduces us to when we are nearly forced to forget why & how we loved the people we still are with for they have long since ceased to be themselves.)
I read somewhere that it took Thomas a decade to finish his novel & taste the fruits of success. A high school teacher in NY, he’d been working on his novel in between his class assignments. What never fails to surprise me is the unity of tone that an author is capable of maintaining when he’s plodding away at the same project for years on end (Donna Tratt’s Goldfinch is another example.) There is no abrupt deviation in the protagonist’s voice, no rude revelations about her character, and certainly no jarring breaks in between the novel’s different parts.
WANO opens with a dedication from King Lear, "We are not ourselves / When nature, being oppressed, commands the mind /To suffer with the body." Those familiar with Shakespeare’s play will recognize how pertinent they are in the context of what befalls Lear and how he is mightily reduced, and also subsequently elevated to. It hints at the diminishment that automatically follows when we are forced to abandon our true selves. While the major part of the novel focuses on a particular disease which brings about this diminishment, we also witness other ways in which people often forget their better selves, as in the case of the protagonist, Eileen’s mother.
At the novel’s centre is Eileen Tumulty, raised in an Irish-American immigrant family in Queens, NY. While the novel accommodates her scientist husband Ed and her son Connell later on, she remains the pivot from which all action flows.Thomas paints an authentic picture of the community Eileen and her family are a part of and which grants them their respective identities in America. The traits which will characterize Eileen for much of the novel and which will also determine much of how we, yhe readers, respond to her, are planted & described meticulously by Thomas in the book’s early sections. Her essential aloofness, her fierce desire to leave behind the gloomy environs of her childhood and aspire to a better life, her ambitions, her independence and sheer physical capacity for hard work, her wordless commitment to taking care of her own, irrespective of her personal feelings towards them – is all there in the first 200pages of the novel.
Studying to be a nurse so that she can one day get away from her childhood background of poverty and alcoholism, Eileen has no plans to marry when she meets Ed, a young neuroscientist who is as taken in by her as she is by him. While there is no doubt about how impressed she is by Ed, one cannot help but guess that part of her also sees Ed as an extension of her aspirations of material and intellectual ascendency. However, neither recognizes that there are huge differences in what each wants out of life and these differences in ideology, aspiration, intellectual power, and sheer will, forms a vivid backdrop of their long married years together. They are even different in what each wants for their son Connell and how they bond with him. Mathews great achievement lies in his depiction of their shared lives, the outbursts, unreasonable demands, emotional upheavals and occasional manipulations that most marriages are made up of.
When Ed is struck with early onset of Alzheimer’s, the novel begins its last and major section. What is remarkable about Thomas’ achievement is that what could have easily become a tear-jerker is transformed in his hands into a sacred gospel of other lives from which one can learn and be enriched. The reader feels privileged to be able to catch a glimpse of the magnificent spirit which animates Eileen and which is fully realized only in these later sections. It’s as if whatever we’ve known about her has only been a prep for this final revelation which strips away every impression and response we have garnered for her so far. Far from being distraught, Eileen accepts and tackles her husband’s illness in much the same way she had earlier accepted her mother’s irresponsible behavior. The underlying difference is, of course, the deep and unshakable love and pride she feels for him. If there is outrage, it is never directed at any deity or destiny, merely at those who now treat Ed as she knows he really isn’t – not quite himself.
Interspersed in the story of Eileen’s life is that of her son Connell, his extreme closeness with his father, his later quite-cavalier-yet-wholly believable response to his father’s disease, and final reconciliation with it.
Long after the novel ends, one is left with minute incidents and gestures that animate its narrative – a hand patting its knee compulsively, a letter from a father, a mother’s calm fury that she is on her own and must get through a long night, a humble and grateful acceptance that whie life deprives us of much, in the end, it also compensates in strange ways.