The Heart of Everything was the Irish Times Book Club choice for May. During the month a series of articles and interviews (with contributions from Professor Margaret Kelleher, Ivana Bacik, Kathleen MacMahon, Susan McKay, Andrea Carter, Kate Lynch, Ciara Considine and Michael Foley, and a written Q&A with Sarah Gilmartin) explored different aspects of the book, ending with a podcast chitty-chat with Martin Doyle, recorded in the Irish Writers’ Centre.
For a month, Mags, Anita, Raymond and Elin were analysed and critiqued, sympathised-with and scrutinised, pitied and praised. Their fictional ears were a-flame. Some of the articles discussed the book’s headline themes: dementia, missing persons, ageing, family dynamics. Others, such as Michael Foley’s piece about constructed identity, picked up on nuances. He discussed the fallacy of the idea that any of us have a true, single identity: everyone in the book constructs a version of Mags, and all are found to be false. He described the characters as ‘a soup of identities’, and commented ‘as much as we’d like to imagine that the identity to which we cling is actually ours, it is really only partly ours and partly what others make of it.’ Turns out, I wasn’t the only person who had made Mags up: her children had too. Over the course of a week they unpick her life and still can’t manage to find her hiding within it. His article reminded me of an exhibition I saw twenty years ago – a fascinating video installation called Passing by American artists Hillary Leone and Jennifer Macdonald. (I also remember that they were the first people I’d ever met who wanted takeaway coffee. Coffee in 1996 was a sedentary activity: the idea of buying a hot beverage in one place and carrying it around in order to drink it somewhere else struck me then as kind of silly). Anyway, Passing featured people who were living in a way that was untrue to their real selves. They were passing themselves off as something other: straight, happy, successful, sane, female…
The experience of older people feeling as though society no longer sees them is one Michael Foley is familiar with through his work in Age & Opportunity. He’s noticed that while some rail against it, there are only too many people who accept it, almost as a deserved fate. Mags Jensen is a railer. She is, as Susan McKay succinctly put it, ‘angrily aware of the way ageing women become invisible’. The cruelty of this unwanted disappearance into ageing was one of the reasons I wanted to write the book in the first place. It’s why I decided the person who goes missing had to be an older person, someone who is already wondering what society perceives their ‘value’ to be.
Margaret Kelleher discussed the book as being about the excess of memory. Thinking of the Jensens as a family marked by too much remembering was a new take on it to me. I had considered it as being about the absence or falling away of memories – or the flipside of that: a decisive, active, forgetting. She also read it as a book about sibling relationships, and commented on the comparative lack of novels about siblings (the gauntlet has been thrown, people). This was a theme that Kathleen MacMahon’s thoughtful piece touched on too, when she wrote that ‘the absence of any compassion between the siblings is matched only by their self-absorption.’ And of the ‘reluctant intimacy of a shared childhood’. Anita, Raymond and Elin are ‘stunted by their losses,’ as Susan McKay phrased it. For her, it became a novel about love, ‘and how we need it and how we fear it.’
The torch every reader brings shines differently, and for crime writer Andrea Carter, it became a page-turner mystery novel. For Ivana Bacik, grief became the big overarching theme of the book. Her spirited defence in favour of Anita – who I had always considered the least likeable character even as I sympathized with the deep, growling horror of her bereavement – made me consider the oldest of the Jensen siblings in a new, and kinder, light. And yes, I know that sounds daft considering I was the one who invented Anita, but that was my imagined version: she became a different person in Ivana Bacik’s imagination. To her, Raymond was ‘rather feckless and irresponsible’ and Elin revealed to be ‘mired in self-pity and self-obsession’, whereas only Anita – a woman trapped within a very active grief – is trying to take control and assume responsibility for their mother’s life.
A month later, The Heart of Everything became a book about love. A book about grief. About ageing and dementia, siblings, fear and loss. It is what is always was, but more. At the podcast recording in the Irish Writer’s Centre, three friends of mine had a conversation about the parent (two mums, one dad) they had each lost to dementia. And for that, thanks Mags.