At the recent CBI Conference, I was lucky enough to hear this book’s author, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, speak about her journey to publication and the genesis of Back to Blackbrick. It deals, in a unique and touching way, with an elderly man’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease and its effects on his family, particularly his grandson Cosmo, the story’s narrator.
Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s father suffered with this cruel disease, and her heartbreaking note at the back of the book dedicating it to his memory was very moving. However, for some reason, I didn’t find her depiction of Kevin (Cosmo’s grandfather) and his struggle with mental decline to be quite so emotionally wrenching. Overall, this is a book I admire and one which I respect, but not one which I love.
It starts out well – Cosmo’s voice is funny and engaging, and some of the scenes with his grandfather, though narrated in a deadpan way, are clearly terribly sad. Kevin is spotted talking to a lamppost by some of Cosmo’s classmates, and word gets out at school that the elderly man is crazy; Kevin mistakes the dishwasher for the toilet, causing the family to start ‘…putting the super hot cycle on twice (p. 2). His relationship with his wife – Cosmo’s Granny Deedee – is wonderful, particularly in an early scene when she describes the beauty of his hands, a beauty that Cosmo cannot see. Cosmo’s family structure is complex: his mother has left Ireland for Australia, leaving her son behind (which I found a bit troubling), his brother Brian died in an accident at the age of ten, and his uncle Ted is living in the US. So, his grandad Kevin and granny Deedee are all the family he has. For the most part, Cosmo is happy at home, despite the fact that he will not speak to his mother when she phones; he and his grandfather share a love of horses, and they are very close until his illness begins to get in the way.
Social workers descend on the family, attempting to take Kevin away and place Cosmo in care, and amid the tumult Kevin has a moment of urgent clarity during which he gives Cosmo a key and tells him where to bring it – the South Gate of Blackbrick Abbey, a place in which Kevin spent a lot of his youth. He doesn’t explain why, but Cosmo makes his way there anyway, enters by the correct gate, and meets a young man whom he seems to know, in some strange way. He quickly works out the young man’s identity, and ends up staying in Blackbrick for what seems like a year.
And here’s where the book started to lose a bit of its urgency, for me.
I never really ‘got’ the sense of place in the book. Blackbrick Abbey didn’t come alive for me, for a few reasons – I didn’t think it was particularly historically accurate (not that historical accuracy is the point of the book, but still), and there’s a scene between Maggie (a character Cosmo meets shortly after his arrival) and Lord Corporamore, the owner of Blackbrick, which almost made me put the book aside. I understand the point which was being made but I feel it could have been handled differently, in a way which would have taken nothing from the power of what happens to Maggie.
The book has a lot to say about several important things, including the role of memory in the formation of identity, the terrible toll of grief and the bonds of love between family members, no matter whether geography or ill-health come between them. I loved the scenes where Kevin is teaching Cosmo how to care for horses and the depiction of Kevin in general – even though I wasn’t moved to tears, I still found his character compelling and enjoyable to read. I also loved, and was very moved by, the story of Crispin Corporamore, the son of Blackbrick, whose premature death has also left his family devastated. Having said that, I do feel the narrative voice loses some of its hold over the reader as the book comes to a close. I was bothered, a little, by the time-slip elements in the book too – some of what Cosmo does in the ‘other’ Blackbrick should have had knock-on effects in his own world, but they don’t seem to – but all the same I admired the way in which it was realised and the way in which Moore Fitzgerald ties it in to the theme of memory loss and the fragmentation of identity.
Also, I liked Cosmo (except for one scene near the end of the book when I felt he was needlessly being a brat, but that might be a personal thing!), and I loved his grandparents. Except for the slight loss of voice at the end of the book, I felt drawn into Cosmo’s world and I was with him in his adventure. He was a strongly-drawn and interesting character with plenty of depth. Some parts of the setting didn’t work for me, but the story was clever. Certainly, I’ve never read anything like it before, and I’m impressed by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s imagination.
As I’ve said already, though – this is a book I admire and respect, but it’s not one I love. For some reason – perhaps an entirely personal one – it was missing emotional heft for me. It’s strange, because I had a beloved great-aunt who suffered with dementia in her latter years, and so I do know the effects such an illness can have on a family. Back to Blackbrick is an important book, and its descriptions of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease are unflinching. I’d definitely recommend it to other readers, and I’ll look forward to Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s future work.
Edit: Sarah Moore Fitzgerald has a new book, The Apple Tart of Hope, which is being published soon. It sounds wonderful. Check it out.