In 2003, just over two years after his heart transplant my father caught a bus from his regional hometown to Brisbane for some tests with a neurologist. I picked him up and took him to the hospital, waited while he was in with the specialist and then took him back to the bus.
I’m not sure what happened while he was in being ‘tested’ but he came out devastated. Deflated. He talked about some of the memory tests he’d been given and couldn’t believe he’d struggled with them. Interestingly it was years before his official diagnosis of vascular dementia but perhaps we were fortunate it took a while to invade his mind and his memories.
Eighty-year old Robbie Brandon, the lead character of Julie Cohen’s Together, seems to have suffered a far quicker decline. But it takes us the whole book to understand why its full impact would be even more devastating for him, his beloved Emily and their family.Together
by Julie Cohen
Published by Orion
on July 13th 2017
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Literary Fiction
On a morning that seems just like any other, Robbie wakes in his bed, his wife Emily asleep beside him, as always. He rises and dresses, makes his coffee, feeds his dogs, just as he usually does. But then he leaves Emily a letter and does something that will break her heart.
As the years go back all the way to 1962, Robbie's actions become clearer as we discover the story of a couple with a terrible secret - one they will do absolutely anything to protect.
As is probably obvious from the blurb, this book works backwards. Like the movie Memento, though with less tattoos and murderous intent.
It starts with something devastating and I was in messy tears within pages. My own family’s experience with my father’s dementia (his inability to remember anything new and slow erosion of his long term memory) remains fresh enough that – for a while – I wasn’t sure I could continue reading.
It was like the fog that came in silently and out of nowhere, and socked you in so solid you couldn’t see a single thing, not even your own sails. In a fog like that you could only navigate from instruments, not from sight – but with this fog, none of the instruments worked. You were in waters you knew like the back of your hand, but you couldn’t tell where you were. You could strike a rock that you’d avoided a million times before; that you knew like an old friend. Or you could head in completely the wrong direction and never find your way back. p 5
We then flip back just a month or two when Robbie and Emily finally discuss his increasingly problematic memory issues. (And I found the neurologist’s questions very deja-vuish given my dad’s experiences.) Other than the obvious concerns about Robbie’s loss of memories there’s something else there, a real fear of secrets being revealed and lives being ruined. And Cohen very VERY cleverly ekes a bit of that out (though it will perturb you if you’re logic-obsessed like me, causing you to wonder why there are some discrepancies in dates and timeframes) and springs it on us right at the very end.
I should mention – for those similarly affected (by dementia / alzheimers etc) – the book is not about Robbie’s decline, so after the first few chapters we are on safer ground. (Continuing with Robbie’s fog / sailing metaphor! Kinda.)
Cohen reintroduces us to Emily and Robbie at key moments in time. In the 1990s when we learn more about the complications around Robbie’s relationship with oldest son William; then the 1970s around the time of the arrival of their youngest son Adam and when Robbie and Emily’s life together begins. And then back to the 1960s when their paths first cross.
This book is well written and brilliantly paced. We’re offered complex and interesting characters via Robbie and Emily, but – unusually (for me, anyway) – the strength of this novel is in its telling. Cohen really nails the pivotal points in the Brandons’ lives and offers up a very balanced and blunt account of each.
It reminded me a little of the TV show This is Us, which moves about in time, showing us how (and why) family members became the people they are – the experiences they enjoyed and endured and how it impacted them. And like that show, in this book we ‘see’ the results before we learn about their origins.
The backcover blurb on my version of this book asks,
Is this a great love story? Or is this a story about great love?
I most certainly think it’s the latter.
Together by Julie Cohen was published in Australia by Hachette and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publishers for review purposes.