Just Finished: There Were No Windows by Norah Hoult

Alchemilla Mollis taking advantage of the rain to look good in the front garden

Readers of a nervous disposition look  away now. This was a grim and frightening read.

And yet here I am recommending it to anyone who may have the stomach for it. It’s about a woman living with dementia, written before we had begun to understand the disease.

I only know about dementia at some distance: I’ve met and read with people living with the disease in care homes, and I have heard the distressing stories of friends whose parents have lived and died  with it.

The novel, first published in 1944,  is set in London during the war, and that external hell seems to be a kind of showing forth of the internal hell that is the life of  Claire Temple as she  loses her self and descends into fear, paranoia and desperation.

Oddly,  after I finished the book I found myself thinking back to the toddler book, Chickens, that I wrote about yesterday.  Is There Were No Windows a single subject book? No, not really, though it is ‘about’ dementia, but it is also about  the second world war, the breaking down of the  Edwardian class system, the value of life, the meanings lives may have. It is about being a particular person – Mrs Temple, but also about her  cook, Kathleen, the  paid companion, Miss Jones, and Doctor Fairfax all take turns to lend the reader their consciousness as they each live  in their own particular way with this terrible situation.  So while there is insight into  what dementia looked like and how it was understood  before we knew what it was ( people describe Claire as losing her memory/ a difficult person to deal with/sometimes incontinent/mad/mental/possessed) the really compelling aspects of the book are the direct human experiences. And the key experience is not so much dementia as loneliness. ‘There were no windows’, as the title of the book has it,  because Claire, and perhaps the other people in the story, are shut in to themselves, alone. Claire is lonely because she is trapped in the house with none of the literary/social life from which life was built.

Here she is having supper with her friend Edith, who comes to see her once a week, Edith pressing her to eat:

‘…And you really must have some tart.’
‘Must I?’
‘You see, if you don’t eat your memory will just go on getting worse and worse. You won’t make enough blood to feed your brain, you know.’
‘I know what you mean. You mean pernicious anemia. I do try and eat, but it’s so lonely having all my meals by myself. It’s like living in a cave without having any scenery about one. People have always been my scenery, you see. The props and the decor. Remove them, and really what’s the good of having the play at all? I always so disliked those horrid little repertory theatres with no orchestra, and everything done in the dark or else in the kitchen. Cook does occasionally let me have my meals with her in the kitchen. Would you and your sister come here to live, and then we could all have our meals together? It would be so nice.’
Edith paused a moment and drew a deep breath. The she said:
‘Apart from everything else, my sister wouldn’t dream of moving further into London with the increased risk of bombs.’
‘I thought only the lower classes were afraid of bombs. They go into shelters and down the Tubes. Does your sister go into a shelter?’
‘No, she doesn’t because we haven’t got one.’
‘Poor Lisa gets frightened. Oh where is Lisa? I must find her.’ Mrs Temple rose with a distracted air.
‘Sit down, Claire. you know we agreed some time ago that when I came to lunch on Sunday the cat should be kept downstairs, don’t you remember?’
Reluctantly Mrs Temple sat down and reached for her glass.

There’s a grim humour in the book  as sometimes there is in life when  domestic situations are very hard. I enjoyed the chapter where some younger visitors take Claire to the pub, where she is conspicuously out-of-place and remarks to the assembled company ‘Isn’t this nice? I mean to see everybody drinking so happily together… This is public house, isn’t it? I do think it is  so pleasant to see everybody sitting together and drinking. Why don’t I  come here more often?’

The pub is lively, compared to home, and Claire enjoys it, though she quickly alienates everyone with her posh toff voice and patronising approval. Minutes latershe is screaming in panic, not understanding why she is in a taxi.

It’s a tough read, so I’ve read it slowly, a little bit each night, and it has felt like drinking  fish oil.

Why do I think, despite my fear of the content, that it is good for me to read it? Why didn’t I just give up, as I give up on many books?  What in me wants to read it?

I’m sixty-one and think about  old age, death, dying, dementia  more than I used to – possibly every day at some point some such thought will be in  my mind. I need to think – how am I going to do this mountainous task  of getting old and dying that lies ahead?  I glimpse the foothills now. Gotta get smart, as Les Murray’s poem says.  I have got something to learn  about getting through the next decade or two.  There was learning  in this novel, and  that’s why I continued to read, despite the darkness of it. I want to know what is going to happen.

There a really good section at the end when the doctor thinks over his thoughts about ends of life.   I won’t reproduce it now –  no time for all that typing –  but he sets up some very interesting questions,  which would be good to talk about sometime, when I do a Saturday Day School on Age and Ageing. If anyone has the stomach for that?