It’s remarkable that I can have all but forgotten the details of a novel that deals with so heart-rending a subject as dementia, and yet, six months after reading Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, here we are. Khong’s protagonist is Ruth, a 30-something who returns home for a year when her father develops Alzheimer’s in order to help her mother care for him and adjust to her new reality.
The story of that year is narrated by Ruth in short, diary-like snippets: she relates her mother’s newfound obsession with preparing and serving unprocessed food; her own efforts to help her father keep teaching after he’s fired from the university he once lectured at for his increasingly erratic conduct; and the realisations she comes to about her parents’ marriage, including her father’s alcoholism and infidelity. Ruth’s voice is wry, lightly humorous and frankly not terribly original; you’ll be familiar with the general tone if you’ve ever watched an episode of Call the Midwife.
That sounds perhaps more damning than I mean it to be. I actually quite like Call the Midwife: I wish more television shared its gentleness and its hopefulness in the face of poverty, discrimination and political upheaval. Similarly, the grace and tenderness with which Khong’s characters face the dissolution of memory and the slow disappearance of a loved one is quietly touching and intensely humane; these are ordinary people making ordinary mistakes, and ultimately trying to do their best for each other in their own ways.
But, as with Call the Midwife, I think the humour and the gentleness flattens the intensity of what these characters are facing: it’s a consolatory move, a reassurance that actually everything is all right, when in reality it is not. The thing about dementia is that the person you knew is both gone forever and still there, in front of you, changed; and Khong’s wry tone here smooths over that disconnect, papers over that grief, in a way that is ultimately unsatisfying. I enjoyed the novel – while I was reading it. But nothing about it has stayed with me.