At first I didn’t know what to make of The Carer by Deborah Moggach. She travels a fine comic line nudging towards simplistic or tasteless stereotypes. But then, as she did in These Foolish Things, the novel finds its stride. In two parts, Moggach takes her original portrayal of this family, shows it through different eyes, and turns it upside down.
In Part One we meet widower James Wentworth, OBE, 85, retired particle physicist, living downstairs in his home after breaking a hip; and his live-in carer Mandy, 50, from Solihull. ‘Mandy hummed show tunes as the kettle boiled. Blood Brothers was her favourite, about two boys separated at birth. She said she had seen it three times and blubbed like a baby.’ Mandy is fat, jolly, is a chatterer, and says it as she finds it.
Part One is told from the alternating viewpoints of James’ children. Unfulfilled artist Phoebe, 60, lives in a Welsh village in the area where she had many happy childhood holidays. Robert, 62, former City trader, is now writing a novel in his garden shed in Wimbledon, while married to a television newsreader. Our first impressions of their father, and of Mandy, are filtered through their middle class worries and prejudices. Both harbour resentments about their father’s absences when they were children when he travelled the world for work; resentments that straight-talker Mandy tells them they should have got over years ago.
Mandy is truly a catalyst of change, not just for James but for Robert and Phoebe too.
The situation is a believable one faced in today’s society as we all live longer. James in his eighties needs full-time care, his children are already retired. A succession of carers has come and gone, each unsatisfactory in one way or another. When Mandy arrives she seems an angel. Initially, Phoebe and Robert put aside the class differences as Mandy cares for their father so well. The daily walk to the nearby donkey sanctuary or trip to Lidl for pots of flavoured mousse, soon become day trips to Bicester Village and eating at Nando’s. Initially thriving under Mandy’s care with daily scratchcards and a chirping kitchen clock, James seems more forgetful so when Robert’s daughter sees the papers from James’ desk upstairs in a mess, they fear the worst. Why is Mandy looking in their father’s private documents. Can she be trusted. And what has prompted James’ sudden mental and physical decline. The twist which comes halfway through is masterful.
Part Two is James’ story, starting from his life as a young father and married to Anna. One day he attends a conference in Cardiff. What happens there affects the rest of his life, but in ways even he cannot have predicted. At the end there is one more twist, unexpected, that once again casts Robert and Phoebe’s understanding of their lives into a whirlwind.
At the heart of this novel is the question, can you ever really know someone. Whether with a stranger or a long-loved family member, don’t we all sub-consciously present different faces to different people. It is easy to assume we know someone because of the public face they present to the world, but the inner thoughts of other people, even our closest relatives – and often their marriages – are always a mystery.
Littered with throwaway quotes from Shakespeare, this is on the surface a quick, contemporary read (only 272 pages) which also casts a light on the prejudices, snobberies and problems of modern society. It is billed as a comic novel but it did not make me laugh. I was left feeling vaguely disappointed.
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