I’d not long watched the movie, The Father, featuring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman (about an ageing father and his daughter) when I read Lily Harford’s Last Request by Joanna Buckley. My own father had dementia and I know the toll it took on my mother as his carer. And as a middle-aged woman myself I’m conscious of my ageing mother’s needs and most of my friends are in similar positions – assisting elderly parents or making decisions about future care and support.Lily Harford's Last Request
by Joanna Buckley
Published by Harlequin Enterprises (Australia) Pty Ltd
Genres: General Fiction, Women's Fiction
Lily has lived a joyful, independent life in a seaside town in Queensland, running her own business and raising a daughter as a single mother at a time when few women did so. Now health and circumstance have pushed her into a nursing home, and her memory is failing, although events of the past remain fresh. Like pulling back the layers of a Russian doll, Lily recalls the former selves - mother, professional woman, lover, daughter - who still exist inside her.
Lily's daughter, Pauline, has been pushed to her limits by her demanding job, as well as the needs of her mother, husband, daughter and grandchildren. And now her mother is begging to die. Nurse aide Donna, still recovering from a dysfunctional childhood and the demise of her marriage, finds comfort in Lily's kindness and down to earth wisdom. As Lily fades, she asks Donna, too, to help her end her life.
This book unfolds from three points of view. There’s the likeable Donna who struggles with self-worth after a lifetime of being belittled by her parents and siblings. She seems to have that perfect balance of patience, sympathy and firmness required in her role as a nurse’s aid. There is – of course – Lily, now in her mid 80s, and much is made of the fact she was a professional woman who owned her own business as a single mother. And then there’s Lily’s only child Pauline – a middle aged school principal with a lot on her plate. Daughter, wife, mother and grandmother.
All three narrators were relatable and engaging. We spend the most amount of time with Lily and Buckley gives us glimpses into Lily’s past in reverse chronological order. I have to say I probably found those snippets the least interesting. I understand their relevance in shaping the Lily we meet in the present and perhaps they even represent Lily pondering her past in a non-linear fashion (as one seems to do increasingly as one ages) but they interrupted the flow of the narrative for me, rather than offer context.
However, what I very much liked about this book was the way Buckley looks at the impact of Lily’s diagnosis (and decline in mental acuity) on Pauline. Perhaps it’s because I’m of a similar age to Pauline and her challenges are most relatable, I’m not sure. I mentioned the movie, The Father, earlier and it predominantly unfolds from the decaying (forgetful) mind of the elderly man with dementia, but there’s also an opportunity to reflect on the role and responsibility of his daughter. In the movie, I was surprised that she left her father to move to another country… given his fragile health and I pondered my response [to her actions] and thoughts about responsibility.
Here of course Pauline grapples with guilt after putting her mother in a home, but there’s also a sadness that the independent single mother Pauline grew up admiring was disappearing. And there’s anger at her mother for leaving her. And presumably for changing. Pauline’s reaction is also reflected in her relationship to her husband and I loved the way Buckley involves him in his mother-in-law’s care, while his wife also keeps him at a distance… seeing her mother as ‘her’ responsibility.
This would make an excellent bookclub read as I think there are points-of-view to debate. (Of course) I didn’t even touch on the fact that Lily wants to end her life. Not immediately initially, but before she deteriorates and lingers, as she’d seen her own father do. I think readers will have opinions, not just over the issue of assisted death, but the potential impost on others by requesting that they be involved.
Lily Harford’s Last Request by Joanna Buckley will be published in Australia by HQ Fiction and available in early February 2022.
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.