By Paul Toolan
I live in an English rural village with a demographic weighted towards retirees. I’m one of them, I suppose.
There are young people too, but older bodies tend to fill the shops and the midday streets. I find myself reflecting on these sometimes solitary folk, about their past lives and the people they’ve known. Have they forgotten more than they care to remember – or just forgotten?
The stories in A View from Memory Hill were triggered by such images, nudged along by Kierkegaard’s idea that we live life forward but only really understand it backwards. Their settings come from the everyday world – a chemist’s shop, a village square, a railway station, a College, a pub, the bus journey from work to home – as well as real places. In the first and last stories in the book I used local outdoor settings. The title story is based on Ham Hill, an ancient hill fort in Somerset which I often visit. I take photographs to help me remember!
For perspective, I introduced younger voices too, and enjoyed exploring that sometimes-land of modern misunderstanding, where the old and the young coincide. A range of characters evolved, and broad themes firmed up as I continued to write: memory, the past, ageing, and loneliness – and the positive antidote of choosing to take action to avoid being lonely.
For structure, I opened and closed the 12 stories with the same pair of characters: Jack – who has Alzheimer’s – and Maeve, his wife. I guess they are distillations of various articles and documentaries I’d read and seen about dementia, and about Alzheimer’s in particular. Maeve has become Jack’s carer. Alzheimer’s couples may recognise her predicament:
“Jack was sleeping on the day-bed she’d rigged up in the conservatory. When he was bad, any sleep would do. She was Jack’s dictionary now, non-stop, exhausting, the reference book for all the objects, all the people he could no longer name. The butt, too, of each resulting outburst.
‘Do you know nothing?’ he would yell. ‘Nothing?’”
Despite Jack and Maeve’s difficulties, memory still breaks through, and with it, joy and laughter.
In between, the other stories explore the book’s themes through a range of genres, including crime, social satire, gothic noir, and romance, to give a variety of reader experiences.
So far, reviewers have enjoyed these “wonderful insights on ageing”.
“I felt nostalgic when I finished reading,” said one reviewer. “Where have the years gone? So many memories had me a bit emotional, truthfully.”
For me, if I’ve triggered emotion and insight in my readers, on such important themes, then I’m a happy man.