The Hard Word Box – Sarah Hesketh

“She almost thought she’d said the words aloud, but she hadn’t. They remained trapped in her head, but not because they were barricaded by plaques and tangles. She just couldn’t say them aloud” ― Lisa Genova

The Hard Word Box – Sarah Hesketh

thwb_smI found this book on the Penned in the Margins Facebook page and was automatically drawn to it. A poetry book based on someone’s experience of time spent in a dementia care home is something I have not come across before, and I felt as though the book had the potential to be something truly amazing.

I realised that what was most important, was not that Maureen used to like jazz, or that Bill had once been a butcher, but that Jack tells great jokes, Phyllis likes helping others to the table – that’s who these people are now. They are still living their live, and these lives are what need to be represented.

‘What would happen if you placed contemporary artists in dementia care settings and asked them to create responses?’ – this is exactly what Sarah Hesketh strove to find out, and The Hard Word Box is the result.

The individual pieces within The Hard Word Box are a combination of poems, interviews, short stories and anecdotes. The poems are made up of words and phrases included on care plans and posters, as well as those words spoken to Hesketh by the residents of the care home. One particular piece contains every word a certain resident said to Hesketh during her time in the home. The piece, ‘Elizabeth’, is incredibly poignant, spanning several pages, with the words few and far between, casual phrases in a sea of silence.

Of the three interviews Hesketh published, it is the one with Marlene, the sister of a dementia sufferer, which I found to be the most moving. She speaks at length about the stigma of dementia – which is of course, something that those with developed dementia cannot do themselves – as well as the seven years she spent caring for her brother as his mental state declined. Marlene spoke of how isolated she became once her friends began to draw away because they could not cope with her brother, and this, she says, is something she will never learn to forget. People fear dementia, and they are embarrassed by it, but this only makes it worse for those for whom dementia is a reality. Getting old is terrifying, not just for those who grow old, but also for the people left behind.

Reading The Hard Word Box was an incredibly emotional journey for me. I was reminded of the time my own grandmother spent in a dementia home, before she eventualllost her battle with old age. She was once the most motherly of creatures, always there to make a cup of tea and offer a warm blanket on a cold day. Once in the care home she was a very different lady, she no longer spoke much, and liked to fuss around in the sitting area, rearranging magazines, dusting shelves and continually wiping the care assistants’ names off the white board.

I could draw so many parallels to the stories and poems, not just from my grandmothers own situation, but those of the people I grew to know in Nanna’s care home. Elizabeth, who didn’t like cats, and just wanted Blanchy (her daughter, who never visited) to put that ‘thing’ outside; Grace, who, at 103 years old had spent her entire life in care; and a group of ladies whose names escape me, who, every afternoon, could be found sat in the television room, happily singing along to the radio. I could see so much of these times in Hesketh’s work, the high-backed chairs, sterile bathrooms and regimental bedrooms somehow at odds to the colourful array of personalities nestled within the care home.

Through The Hard Word Box, Hesketh has given a voice to some of the most outspoken members of society. The individual stories and poems are so sad to read, but it is beautiful to see the words as these people have said them. For me, Hesketh’s work is ground-breaking not in what it says, but in how it says it.

I’ve never read a book before which touched me in the quite the same way as The Hard Word Box did. Elizabeth is Missing, with its presentation of dementia, came close, but I felt safe in the knowledge that the book was fiction – written to make you think, but ultimately, to entertain. The reality of The Hard Word Box is something which really struck a chord with me – these people and their stories, lives and words are real. Hesketh made me feel a terrifying array of emotions: I felt cold, lonely, frightened and – ultimately – ashamed. Dementia is such a difficult subject, one that a lot of people simply do not know how to deal with. I will be the first to admit that I find it difficult, but I am learning. The words need saying, but they are, indeed, hard words to say.

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

“But the thing about remembering is that you don’t forget.” ― Tim O’Brien

What was it I came for? The loaded shelves frown down at me as I circle them, and the blue and white linoleum stares up, dirty and cracked. My basket is empty, but I think I’ve been here for a while; Reg is watching me. I reach for something: it’s heavier that I was expecting and my arm is pulled down suddenly with the weight. It’s a tin of peach slices. That’ll do. I put a few more tins in my basket, tucking its handles into the crook of my arm. The thin metal bars grind against my hip on the way to the counter.

EIM-pb-jacketMaud’s memory is not as sharp as it once was. She forgets to turn the gas off, eats endless amounts of toast, makes cup after cup of tea which line up, cooling on the side board, and has enough sliced peaches to feed an army – but still she buys more.

To help her to remember, Maud has a ‘paper memory’ – countless notes left by her carers, her daughter and herself. Notes fill her house, her pockets, and the gaps in her arm chair, instructions, reminders, recipes and phone numbers spill from every orifice. In Maud’s pocket, amongst the shopping lists and appointment slips is a note in Maud’s own handwriting that reads ‘Elizabeth is missing’. Elizabeth is Maud’s friend; the only friend she has left. She doesn’t remember when she wrote the note, but she knows that something is wrong. If only she could tell someone, if she could just make them understand.

Elizabeth is Missing is probably not what you expect. I asked a friend if she knew what the book as about, she looked at me in confusion and said, or asked, ‘some girl called Elizabeth who goes missing?’ – She couldn’t be further from the truth. This book is so much more than just a mystery.

Fifty years ago Maud’s elder sister went missing. In Maud’s mind lie the secrets to solving this mystery, and they are desperate to get out, but it’s difficult to solve a puzzle when you keep forgetting the clues. Maud can’t remember the relevance of her thoughts – there is definitely something important about planting marrows, but she can’t be sure what. She struggles to express herself, forgets the word she was just about to say, answers a questions asked hours before, and relives conversations from years past. It’s no wonder no one takes her seriously.

In Elizabeth is Missing the clues are slowly teased from Maud’s damaged mind. The reader is tossed between the present day, and fifty years in the past, reliving, day by day, the disappearance of Maud’s sister, before returning to the present to search for her ‘missing’ friend. The present is confusing, muddled and foggy, while the past is pristine and bright.

Maud’s memories: her parents’ house, the yard, the pantry, and the dusty bedroom floors – are all so clear and picture perfect. Emma Healey creates a rich, colourful background for Maud, clearer and crisper than the black and white photos of her past. The second Maud casts her mind back it is as though you are there with her in the kitchen, stirring the supper cooking on the stove and preparing the table; focus and you can hear the tinkling of tea into china cups, and the soft clink of the tea spoon.

Return to the present, and the scene is much more blurry.

In Elizabeth is Missing, Healey has taken a theme something that many people are incredibly uncomfortable with, and expressed it in a way that I have never seen before. Watching a loved-one grow old and lose their capacities is one of the most heart wrenching and terrifying experiences I have ever had, and it was incredible to view this from the other side. Elizabeth is Missing allows the reader to take on the role of the person whose mind is failing, to see the world through their eyes. The effect is unsettling, haunting and somewhat humbling.

Maud is an amazing character, she is funny, cleaver and mischievous, but her story is so incredibly sad. If you are an emotional reader, as I am, this one is likely to induce a few tear-filled episodes. There were also times when I felt so angry on behalf of Maud, I was furious with the people around her, those close to her who, it seemed, would ignore her, dismiss her, and neglect her. But of course, the events are portrayed through Maud’s mind, you do not see the other times. The times she has forgotten. It is difficult to describe the emotional rollercoaster that this book took me on – I laughed, I cried, and, in the end, I closed the book feeling completely overwhelmed.

Elizabeth is Missing is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. Despite the games Healey played with my emotions, I loved every second of it. Each individual aspect of the book combines to create something truly unique and stunning. Even now, weeks after having finished the book I feel completely blown away by the sheer brilliance of it.

Would recommend to anyone and everyone, if you only read one book this year make it Elizabeth is Missing.