Through fiction and the imprecision of memory, a writer examines the challenging relationship between his grandparents.
After garnering raves and sales for his first novel, Block (The Story of Forgetting, 2008) once again delves into that murky area between lost love, memory and deeply held melancholy. This round, the author builds his story largely on the true-life history of his grandparents, who found themselves at an impasse when his grandmother had his grandfather committed to a mental institution. The novel opens on Echo Cottage, as the writer contemplates his steely-eyed grandmother, Katharine Mead Merrill, in 1989. At 69, Alzheimer’s has started to chip away at long-held memories. Then the story lurches forward to July of 1962, finding the grandfather Frederick Francis Merrill in a drug-induced stupor at the Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill, where he has been incarcerated for a long history of drinking, bad behavior and, finally, flashing two old ladies on a New Hampshire back road. Block examines, through cautious language and nearly imperceptible sympathy, the events that have brought the couple from here to there. And it is true that Katherine is in an awful state. “Katherine is a mother of four, with a husband in a mental hospital,” Block writes. “The winter is coming, and the money is running out. Her marriage has failed, everyone knows it, and she has no real friends. Her relatives have turned against her husband first, and now they are turning on her too. She can no long be anything other than what everyone plainly sees her to be.” But there is sympathy to be unearthed for Frederick, too, as Block expertly captures the frustration and personal devastation wreaked by his grandfather’s depression, equally hard on him as it is on his family. As he suffers in the institution he dubs “Horrorland,” Katherine begins to reconsider her responsibility for her husband’s condition.
A sad but elegantly told story punctuated with photos, letters and a verisimilitude that elevate its fictional ambitions.