The Costs of Care
The Fragments of My Father, Sam Mills, 4th Estate, 2020, 400pp, £16.99, (Hardback)
Looking for Eliza, Leaf Arbuthnot, Trapeze, 2020, 323pp, £14.99 (Hardback)
Carers are the unacknowledged stevedores of the world. The economic contribution of their unpaid humping and dumping is estimated at $10 trillion per year: 13 per cent of global GDP. In the UK, where 6,000 people become carers every day, they save the government £132 billion a year by their labour. Yet, as Sam Mills argues in her memoir The Fragments of My Father, carers are invariably overlooked and undervalued. The ‘Clap for Carers’ in the early months of the pandemic implied caring was a one-off act: a singular performance with a triumphant crescendo and a definite end. Instead, as Mills makes clear, care is work: frequently exhausting, often dull – a mould into which the rest of life must be carefully poured.
Mills feels she must justify her project to herself. ‘I remember telling a friend of mine that I was worried that being a carer might be seen as a boring topic to explore. Unglamorous. I said that perhaps I ought to choose a sexier subject.’ I’m grateful she didn’t go for anything racier: The Fragments of My Father is both a fine testament to her father – and a sharply argued polemic about the place of care in our society. Her father’s condition is ‘odd and rare and complex’; he has a form of paranoid schizophrenia which, when she was growing up, left him strange and withdrawn, as though he had absented himself from family life. His condition occasionally erupted into outlandish behaviours: he stripped naked in the garden, and fell into fits of catatonia, fists banging repetitively, eyes frozen and frightened. He also disappeared for stretches of weeks, and sometimes months. Later, Mills realises these fairy tale vanishings coincided with periods of institutionalisation. Usually a cocktail of anti-psychotic medicines kept his symptoms blunted, allowing for a semblance of normal life. Except when, dramatically and disruptively, they failed.
‘Had I ever made a conscious choice?’ Mills wonders. She is thrust into the role of carer by the death of her mother. In its aftermath, she is the obvious choice – both of her brothers have separate lives. She is a freelance writer and, it is assumed, can fit caring around her work. She is also a woman. In the UK, women have a fifty-fifty chance of becoming carers by the time they are fifty-nine; they are also four times more likely to reduce their working hours because of caring responsibilities. Mills’ description of the way caring stole up on her life is appropriately freak and cataclysmic: ‘My father’s illness had been an eruption that had flowed like lava over my life.’
But as its responsibilities solidify around her, she recognises their literary potential too. Madness is sexy. It is lurid, creative and entertaining; the gibberings of the Bedlamites make for excellent sport. Care, by contrast, is stolid, respectable. It whispers with the creak of well-starched crinoline. In Fragments, Mills muddles these categories with iconoclastic verve. Her debut novel, The Quiddity of Will Self – a kind of literary Being John Malkovich – tumbled together reality and fiction. Likewise, she records the fierce weather systems of narrative and paranoia that circulate within her father. She quotes R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self:
A schizophrenic may say that he is made of glass, of such transparency and fragility that a look directed at him will splinter him to bits and penetrates straight through him … It was on the basis of this exquisite vulnerability that the unreal man becomes adept at self-concealment.
I was struck by how often images of glass and translucency appear – both in Fragments and in the writers Mills draws upon. Virginia Woolf in ‘On Being Ill’: ‘The body [is] a sheet of plain glass’. The Crack-Up: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memoir of alcoholism and breakdown. ‘That shattered self’: her father is frequently described as fragile, fissiparous, liable to break under the rough handling of circumstances or adverse drugs. The exact causes of schizophrenia are unclear. Nature and nurture both seem to play a role, as does childhood trauma: ‘severe abuse in childhood’ trebles the risk of psychosis developing later in life. By this reading, schizophrenia is a kind of mental prophylactic: ‘a fractured self, though weaker, is harder to attack’.
But the notion of the divided self probes at the limits of biography, too. Can a life ever be viewed as through a pane of glass? Doesn’t it delta and riddle instead? These questions are pertinent to Mills’ book, but she pulls back from fully engaging with them. This isn’t such an issue when she is writing about her father –she has the right to tell his story how she likes. But it becomes more troublesome when she looks to literature to find analogies for her own situation. She examines two pairs of literary patients/carers: Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. Of the foursome, the Woolfs come off the best. The sections on their lives are also more persuasive. Mills wades happily into the posthumous scrum around Virginia’s reputation, and goes against of much revisionist scholarship by arguing that Leonard’s care – though controlling at times – encouraged Virginia’s creativity rather than stifling it.
If we downplay Virginia’s madness, then Leonard appears more villain than carer. If we acknowledge her madness, that there were times when she was fragile, when she did need help, then Leonard’s actions are not just reasonable but responsible.
Fragments is refreshing, too, in the extent it quotes from Leonard’s writing. The voice that emerges from his work is powerfully humane: kind, baffled, tired but always stretching towards hope. It is, more precisely, that of a carer. This is especially apparent in the spring of 1941, when Virginia’s illness reasserted itself and she killed herself the River Ouse. ‘I know that she is drowned and yet I listen for her to come in at the door,’ he wrote. ‘I know that this is the last page and yet I turn it over.’
The passages on the Fitzgeralds are less snugly integrated. Scott and Zelda married young, grew up and then grew apart in the public eye. His jealousy and alcoholism, and her psychoses, made them monstrous to each other. ‘They circled their history like vultures fighting for scraps and spoils, tearing at their relationship, feeding off misery and memory.’ They were antagonistically symbiotic: the magnesium flare of his talent couldn’t shine without the snuffing of hers. Mills holds them up as an example of patient/carer relations gone wrong – the inverse of the Woolfs. This is convincing. What is less clear, however, is why she choose the Fitzgeralds. Their story is undoubtedly florid in its nastiness – but it does not add much to her own. As such, it seems a little misplaced.
So too can some of the writing about Mills’ own love affairs. Her on-off intimacy with Z, a famous writer, is evoked in particularly squelchy terms: ‘I smiled and felt cheered, nostalgic for times when Z had wined and dined me, indulging my sweet tooth, candlelight echoing in our dilating pupils.’ But despite these skiddy patches, Fragments is a compassionate, searching book. Mills asks questions of herself, of society – and, finally, of the reader. It leaves you with the question: how would I measure up?
Leaf Arbuthnot’s debut novel Looking for Eliza is similarly empathetic. It is a gentle book, salved of much of the rawness of Mills’ account, but it nonetheless probes the idea of intergenerational friendship productively. A two-hander set in Oxford, its perspective dodges between that of Ada, a sixty-something poet, and Eliza, a postgraduate embarking on a PhD on Primo Levi. Both women are lost; both are lonely. Ada is mourning the death of her husband, Michael, a superstar Italian literature professor. Alone in her comfortable house by the river, she learning to accommodate herself to ‘the beige moments at home, when the ticking of the clock in the sitting room seemed textured and malign’. Eliza, for her part, is new in the city, fleeing a traumatic breakup in Manchester and struggling to assimilate in the rarefied atmosphere of her college. She is also convinced of the futility of her research: ‘Polishing yet another pebble to be chucked into the vast academic quarry’. Eliza moves into the house opposite Ada’s. But Arbuthnot keeps them circling each other for much of the book, peering into each other’s lives – intuiting a kindred soul, but never quite meeting. It’s a teasing constellating familiar to anyone who’s seen a Richard Curtis film.
Yet the story zags pleasingly within these confines. In a bid to fill her days, Ada sets up a rent-a-gran business: she will teach clients to bake, or school them in the art of conversation before an important meeting with the in-laws. It’s a satisfyingly picaresque conceit which Arbuthnot mines artfully for its kooky comedy and unexpected pathos. ‘What if people think you’re a … prostitute?’ asks one character. ‘That made Ada sit up a little. “I’ll break it to them that I’m not. I’m sure they’ll survive.”’ In the course of her adventures, she meets a man-child who has boomeranged back home with such enthusiasm that he is practically wedged in the kitchen wall; she prises him free encouraging him to cook for his mother. And she babysits a ragtag of young children from the nearby estate until she discovers beneath their clothes ‘fingermarks in bruising, patterns that were not the normal assortment of kiddie scrapes’. Such moments sting the narrative away from spoon-full-of-sugar whimsy.
Arbuthnot is particularly good on the creeping shades of loneliness. On the surface, Ada and Eliza are coping. Ada lives in genteel comfort, cossetted by books and familiar routines. Eliza, meanwhile, has no trouble tumbling into bed with exotic roster of lovers. Yet the sfumato of isolation persists. Ada catches her breath at the ‘horror of the night, of the size of her bed and the scorch of its sheets, and the absoluteness of her own company’. Eliza’s aloneness is embodied: ‘She bit her nails, stripping the loose tassels of skin away until the tips of her fingers were neon pink. There was a feeling in her torso like heartache.’ Arbuthnot is also interested in how loneliness plays with time – its passing and recording, its wily tricks. She is often stopping to take the air: to notice the leaves turn or watch ‘the moon tossing its silk among the branches’. The effect highlights the emotional stasis inside her characters, despite the flux of life around them. This motif is present in Fragments, too. Mills’ chapters often begin with a contextualising date; we move through the peaks and valleys of her father’s illness as through a calendar. Their climates may differ – Fragments is necessarily an inside book, while Eliza is more ruddy-cheeked – but their internal weathers are akin.
Eliza has its stylistic stutters. Characters on the periphery of the central twosome feel sketchy. Eliza’s supervisor is kindly, cultured, flamboyant and – si! – so very, very Italian. While her ex-lover Ruby has ‘darkened lips’, a wash of honey-coloured hair and ‘moved in a way that made people ask her if she’d done ballet’; she is suffering, in other words, from an ear-ringing dose of femme fatale. But Ada and Eliza are well-drawn, and their unusual friendship feels authentically lived-in and compelling. Their relationship becomes mutually enriching and fortifying: protection from life’s buffetings as well as portal to its opportunities.
Present in both books, then, is the idea that care – a regular presence in another’s life – is struggle and salvation. Mills returns home to her father and ‘feel[s] how lucky I am to be here with him, and I want to freeze time, stop all change’. Carers may keep the world spinning, but they make it worth living in, too.
Review by Alex Diggins.
For more information and to buy The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills, click here.
For more information and to buy Looking for Eliza by Leaf Arbuthnot, click here.
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