Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves

We Are Not OurselvesOne of my most painful childhood experiences involved watching my grandfather gradually succumb to Alzheimer’s disease. A man who in life possessed a prodigious intelligence, who worked as a doctor and medical researcher, and was rarely seen without a book in his hand, spent the final years of his life struggling to tie his own shoes. It is a viciously cruel disease, striking when it is least expected, when life’s greatest obstacles are supposed to have been conquered. Worse still, it works from the inside, gradually hollowing you out until what’s left is mere shadow, the husk of what you were. Matthew Thomas has an even more painful familiarity with the disease: his father was diagnosed with it when he was barely 50 years old, while Matthew was just a freshman in university. I will resist the urge to reduce We Are Not Ourselves, Thomas’ debut novel, to a dramatization of that experience, or some kind of therapeutic attempt to move beyond the pain it must have caused him. It is both these things, but it is first and foremost a staggeringly good novel.

Eileen Tumulty is a young girl when we first meet her, the daughter of Irish immigrants newly arrived in New York, living with her mother and father in a cramped apartment as their marriage quietly crumbles. Thomas deftly traces the tensions of this small space, and the burden placed on the young Eileen when her mother begins drinking herself into unconsciousness to cope with her failed marriage. Divorce being out of the question, the two take to sleeping in separate bedrooms, and an uncomfortable detente prevails. Wanting better for herself, Eileen determines to get out, first by studying hard and going to university, and later by marrying the right man, who, for Eileen, is the man capable of providing her the life she’s always dreamed of, a life of large houses with wide lawns and the right sort of neighbour. Enter Edmund Leary. His name is more obviously Irish than she would have liked, but he is caring, and intelligent, and she believes he can be gently molded into the kind of husband she’s always imagined. Soon after their engagement, Eileen receives her first warning that her plans for her husband’s future are not mutually shared when he declines to wear the engagement present she spends several paycheques on, an engraved Jaeger LeCoultre watch with a flashy gold band. “I’m a regular guy,” he says; “I don’t know how to wear a watch like this.” When it turns out his career ambitions are more towards public service than private profits, only Eileen could be surprised.

Midway through the book, I had little sympathy for Eileen, despite recognizing in her childhood the seeds of her adult behaviour. She struggles to accept her husband as he is, preferring to nudge him towards her idealization – and this despite his obvious devotion to her. When they conceive a child, almost in spite of themselves, she continues to project her own desires onto their son without ever attempting to get to know him, as her husband does, and it seems she causes more tension in the home than she ever resolves. However, when the fatal blow to her careful scheming is delivered with her husband’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, she redirects her energies into preserving her family and caring for her husband. The tragedy that strikes her family enables her to let go of her impossibly high standards, freeing her to appreciate what she has rather than fixate on what she doesn’t.

There are glimpses of this better self throughout the earlier chapters, premonitions hibernating for a more fruitful season. In one particularly well drawn scene, Eileen is tasked with evicting a tenant family from her home in order that she may sell it and, hopefully, upgrade. But these tenants have been like family to Eileen, have helped raise her son, and she knows that by forcing them out she is making their lives considerably harder. Her pity for them gives way to envy when she sits on their living room sofa:

She sat on the yellow floral couch, which had a pattern she’d always found garish and worn areas by the skirt and armrests. She’d considered it a telling detail that they’d bought a big new television and kept this sofa. Now, as she sank into it, she was taken by its softness. The room, which she’d always thought of as a model of how not to decorate, radiated the warmth of shared usage.

This recognition contrasts painfully with the previous descriptions of her own future, which are always hopelessly wanting, always seen through the eyes of critical guests and never the family using them. The epiphanies continue as she inspects their living room table:

Circular embossments emblazoned the table’s surface like trophies from all-night conversations. They were suddenly so appealing that Eileen wondered for a moment why she’d always been concerned to preserve a pristine surface on her own table, which looked almost as new as the day she bought it, no history engraved on its face.

Eileen’s preoccupation with maintaining a “pristine surface,” whether with her furniture or with her family, blinds her to her husband and particularly her son, and Thomas does an admirable job tracing the family pain as it passes down the generations.

I can only close as I began, by offering the novel high praise: it is an achievement of storytelling and psychology, and I am grateful to my sister for gifting it to me.