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Tears and laughter
12 Sep 2012

BOOK REVIEW
Below Luck Level
Barbara Erasmus
Penguin

PICK up a novel in the bookshop, read the blurb and see it is about caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s. Many of us, I’m afraid, would be inclined to move on. It’s a subject we prefer not to think about.

From that perspective, in writing Below Luck Level Barbara Erasmus was either brave or foolhardy. But she is also triumphant — this is an excellent novel.

Let’s hope that would-be readers are not too squeamish to give it a try.

The sufferer is Chloe Cartwright, a celebrated, if financially unsuccessful, author of struggle novels (also not always big sellers). She is a respected academic and an eccentric and lively widowed mother of two.

Her daughter is Hannah, large and insecure, a serial shoplifter in childhood and adolescence, but enjoying a measure of success after she hooks up with Daniel and the pair become celebrity chefs.

Chloe’s children, who love her, have always considered her cheerfully mad, and so when the symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin to appear, it hardly seems serious.

But it is, and Hannah finally has to face up to the reality of the situation. Her brother Karl, safely ensconced in a commune in Colorado, offers affection and support on Skype, but practical help is harder to come by.

Inevitably, Hannah’s relationship with Daniel takes a lot of strain, and finally there are agonising decisions to be made.

There are passages in this book that will move the reader to tears, but there are also many that will provoke laughter. And Erasmus’s elegant and skilled writing hooks you in from page one — there is a cracking good opening line. The pace is beautifully controlled: there is no wallowing in horrors, though the horrors are present.

At the outset, I was reluctant to pick the book up, but by the end, I was equally reluctant to put it down. Barbara Erasmus has achieved something remarkable here.

Margaret von Klemperer





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