A heartfelt, somewhat moralistic tale of love, loss and difficult decisions.
In his debut novel, Joshi offers a semiautobiographical exploration of an elderly mother’s disappearance into advanced dementia and her son’s struggle to do what’s best for her. Though the ethical gray areas of end-of-life care are rife with potential, Joshi painstakingly makes his opinions too clear for real narrative tension to build, beginning with an unnecessary foreword that includes the leading, synoptic question: “Should human beings in the later stages of dementia be forced to stay alive, connected to machines, when they have no quality of life, or should they be allowed to die with dignity?” The true action of the book begins when narrator Michael Johnson, the youngest of three siblings, learns his mother, Linda, has died—though it’s quickly revealed that Michael had “known it was coming because [he] was the catalyst for her death.” The first few chapters follow the days immediately after, as Michael, sister Maria and brother Mark make funeral arrangements and try to come to terms with their loss. Joshi does some of his best writing here, with specific, evocative details: Michael’s confusion about the death certificate’s bureaucratic significance; his misguided impulse to reprimand the children in the family for playing at the funeral; the adult siblings reminiscing about their mother, trading anecdotes that seem, on the surface, entirely unimportant. The greater portion of the book is devoted to flashbacks tracing the course of Linda’s cognitive deterioration from her first symptoms through her time living with Michael and his family to Michael’s decision to move her to a nursing home. In a moment that feels slightly sexist at the book’s climax, Michael and sensible Mark are unable to convince the “emotional” Maria that it’s in their mother’s best interest to remove the feeding tubes that keep their mother alive in body only.
An uncompromising stance and occasionally heavy-handed writing drain some of the intensity from a difficult, doubt-riddled situation.