His debut novel took Matthew Thomas a decade to write. Was it worth the ten-year slog? In my opinion, yes. Thomas has simultaneously crafted an intimate story of an ordinary family and an epic of post-war America. Born in 1941, the product of a stormy Irish Catholic working-class upbringing in Queens, New York, Eileen Tumulty craves respectability. Coming of age in the early sixties, she meets and marries a young scientist named Edmund Leary. But while Eileen is deeply aspirational for her family, the quiet, unassuming Ed refuses to give up his teaching for a better-paid job. Eileen dreams of a different life: a better job, a bigger house, more respectability.
Inadvertently she starts to climb the ladder in nursing. She pushes Ed into buying a new house, but it soon becomes clear that his resistance is part of a deeply troubling psychological shift. The discovery of Ed’s early-onset Alzheimer’s and the journey the whole family embarks upon as this ravaging disease takes hold forms the heart of the novel. Eileen’s simultaneous feelings of compassion and deep frustration are exquisitely portrayed. Her emotional honesty is painfully moving and the importance of loving each another for the people we are is beautifully explored. For me, it is why the book is so wonderfully memorable.
As Ed’s friends fail to cope with his diagnosis and gradually fall away, our human failings are unflinchingly exposed. In contrast, Eileen’s love remains constant despite her deeply flawed nature. Their son, Connell, whose relationship with his father has always been easy and light, struggles to accept that the man he knew is disappearing in front of his eyes. Connell’s abrupt transition from child to carer is brutal and the fear and anger he feels are terrifyingly captured.
This novel deals with the self being slowly stripped naked. Thomas’s depiction of Ed’s Alzheimer’s is masterly and intensely moving. Alzheimers decimates families. Yet, as Thomas shows, it can also teach you the priceless value of true love.
We Are Not Ourselves is published by Fourth Estate, 640 pages.