By Keri O’Shea
Much is made today of the phenomenon of ‘privilege’ – who has it, who does what with it, and just what should be done about it. People are advised to acknowledge their privilege, or check their privilege…people quibble about how much privilege they really have and what it all really means, and as such there’s rarely a day which goes by when there’s not a new debate on the relative levels of good fortune which we enjoy, don’t enjoy, and so on ad infinitum, with new debates billowing out like smoke on the internet on a dizzyingly regular basis. However, perhaps it’s the hidden truth behind all of this discussion which really has the capacity to act as a leveller, and it’s something we confront only rarely.
We in the West belong to ageing populations; we might all have the leisure time and technological advancements to allow us to pontificate online about other topics to our heart’s content, we might enjoy better health and longer life generally, but the last chapter of this life will be old age, and it’s something we have great trouble acknowledging. There is, of course, good reason for this. Old age is frightening and devastating. Wealth, status, background…these things we argue about throughout our twenties, thirties and forties can offer us only limited comfort or protection against the inevitable. At the end of it all we face growing old – we face the loss of our autonomy, our influence, our health, our vitality and even something as fundamental as our personal identities, our memories of loved ones and friends and deeds, all those things which make us human. These are all things we take for granted, as long as we have hold of them. But we can’t face the threat of their loss, and thus being unable to face ageing, we immure it. The elderly often live segregated from the rest of society, their presence on its fringes a whispered reality, something almost shameful. Author Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone forces us to confront this unpalatable truth both about what we’ll face and how our culture deals with it in her novel, Home. The result is a difficult read, because it is so compassionate as well as visceral in its horror.
Steve, an older guy and something of an everyman figure, is devoted to his wife Fran; they’re one of those couples who have been together so long that they really are two halves, the one complementing the other. Fran, however, has terminal cancer, and knowing her husband so well she finds she can’t just leave him to brood and cope with the fact of her imminent demise at home, so when a caretaker’s job comes up at a local care home, she urges him to take it. Her reasons are straightforward – give him something to do, get him out of the house. Steve’s retired, but he also sees the logic in coming out of retirement for the time being, so he applies and gets the job. The home is in dire need of repair and maintenance, and he has plenty to keep him busy, although he can’t help but think that the home is an odd place – very few staff, and very few clients either. As he develops a closer relationship with Milos, one of the nurses, he begins to become more aware of goings-on at the home which just don’t seem right – until a chance discovery places Steve on the cusp of discovering something repugnant and dangerous about this place.
The structure which Home employs is to use three narrators – Steve and Milo being two of them, and an unnamed client of the home making the third. This means there is no sense of omniscience, and like all of the characters not part of the innermost cabal of the care home, readers are locked out of what’s going on until our protagonist Steve can piece things together. This is the best approach – it’s meant to be alienating, and it really comes into its own in the latter chapters. The fact that Steve is such a likeable, credible man – who has been through hell, and only wants to do the right thing in life – makes you deeply invested in the events which surround him, and the people who evidently know more than he does. In particular, the rest of the care home staff are unknown quantities, perhaps sinister or perhaps innocent (as unappealing as they are personally) so the book retains a sense of the reader being smaller than the place, on a par with Steve as an outsider. Milos, as one of the staff, seems at first to be an unfeeling, inhuman character – but as his narrative provides him with a past and an inner life, it grows more complex than that. Finally, the ‘woman’ who is given a voice at intervals here makes for a heart-rending, disturbing sequence of narratives. I found her sections of the text hardest to read, because Lattin-Rawstrone uses plaintive, yet straightforward language to create an impression of someone utterly unsupported and dehumanised, unable to remember herself or her life, imprisoned within a medical setting and lacking in even a first name. The author does not need to use frilly simile or hyperbole to make this situation hideous, writing descriptively but quite sparsely to allow the woman’s plight to unfold via a series of deeply introspective moments as well as very physical shocks.
Finally, I should say that I did not know what to expect from the plot of this book, other than an awareness that something was of course very wrong with the care home at the crux of it, but the way things go is an unpalatable surprise, one which perhaps pushes believability in places (and doesn’t particularly need its mentions of consumerism as this comes through as a contextual factor of its own accord) but nonetheless, its developments have the power to shock – forming an existential horror blended with elements of body horror.
Home is ambitious, but it delivers, and it delivers on subject matter which most people would shudder to be faced with. Most disturbingly of all, having effectively ratcheted up the tension in its latter chapters, it refuses to allow us a nice, neat return to order. Despite being a page-turner, you turn the pages here with a sense of dread. The overwhelming feeling I had after finishing this book was one of profound sadness, but given the subject matter of the novel, this sadness is integral to the unmistakable horror at play.
You can find out how to order Home here.