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The One With the NewsReview - The One With the News
A Collection of Stories
by Sandra Sabatini
Porcupine's Quill, 2000
Review by Tony O'Brien M Phil.
Feb 8th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 6)

It is not unusual to find a work of fiction that provides a more profound description of the experience of illness than that provided in scientific or medical literature. Think of Chekov's Ward Six; Maupassant's The Horla, or Hesse's Rosshalde. Kafka's Metamorphosis can be read as an allegory that powerfully conveys the experience of psychosis. Sandra Sabatini is in good company in using fiction as a medium to portray the disintegration of a life of a man with dementia. What is unusual in The One With the News is that Sabatini has used ten linked short stories to tell the story of Ambrose; each story showing either a period in the unravelling of his life, or the same period from the perspective of different players in the drama.

Ambrose is a jeweller, known for his meticulous attention to detail. When he forgets how to make the tea, and takes to using a notepad to remind himself of day to day things, his wife Peggy knows there is something wrong. With each story we share different aspects of dementia, through the eyes of Ambrose, Peggy, daughters Alice, and Connie, the paper boy, and a caregiver. Each story is complete in itself, although as you progress through the book your understanding is enriched by deeper and deeper understanding of the web of Ambrose's life. What makes the book memorable is how Sabatini, while holding Ambrose at the centre of the narrative, provides glimpses into the lives of so many others. Gord, the caregiver at the Health Centre, rides his motorcycle to 'look for something good'. Connie is Ambrose's adopted daughter, and in the title story we learn of the special relationship she shares with Ambrose. The concluding story, a collection of reflections on Ambrose's and others' dementia, Sabatini introduces Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, marveling at Bayley's endurance as Murdoch became progressively removed from him. By exploring the lives of those close to Ambrose, Sabatini shows dimensions of Alzheimer's not normally covered, even in biographical accounts of children and spouses. In a story called 'Collecting', Sabatini shows how the changes of dementia are experienced by someone on the periphery of Ambrose's life, the boy who collects his paper money. As Ambrose becomes disorganized and forgetful, the youngster becomes afraid of the old man, and finally feels rejected by him. There is no resolution to this, as there is with family members closer to Ambrose. It is the attention to these more peripheral characters that is one of the central insights of these stories. Like the web of neurons that becomes tangled and dysfunctional in dementia, the social relationships of the individual also begin to break down and disintegrate.

Sabatini is a good storyteller. While the subject matter of dementia carries an inevitable bleakness, this is not overstated, and Sabatini does not sentimentalize Ambrose or patronize readers by gratuitously plucking at their heartstrings. Sadness and tragedy are conveyed with warmth and pathos, but Sabatini is equally adept at conveying the moments of humour that are part of any fully described life. When Ambrose ad-libs to cover up his misunderstanding about the purpose of a toaster, Sabatini allows the reader to enjoy the moment. Nor is the interest of the book confined to dementia or illness; rather, the experience of illness becomes the occasion for exploration of love, identity, hope and faith.

For a health practitioner the book is of interest for its sensitive and closely observed account of dementia. But The One With the News is also a fine piece of writing. Sabatini shows an assured use of language, and deft handling of a range of characters. The book is a pleasure to read for the restrained yet powerful way Sabatini works with what is a somewhat unforgiving plot. A highly recommended read for caregivers and professionals working with people with dementia, and for those who like an accomplished literary treatment of everyday life.

 

 

© 2005 Tony O'Brien

  

Tony O'Brien M Phil., Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland


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