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I Remain in Darkness

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This account of the late stages of her mother’s dementia was published by the French writer Annie Ernaux in 1997 but its first British publication was in 2019. It has been published by the independent publisher, Fitzcarraldo, who publish mainly writings in translation, fiction and non-fiction.

The story of the book is itself poignant. Ernaux’s mother started to develop signs of dementia in about 1982. Her daughter took her to live with her the following year but this did not go well, and so the mother spent her last two years in a long-stay hospital ward. It is this period that comprises most of the book, and it consists of a series of short passages written after individual visits to see her mother in the hospital. It was not originally intended for publication – indeed, Ernaux could not bear to look at these notes for some time after her mother’s death – hence the ten-year lag before the French publication of the book.

It is not a long book, less than 80 pages, but it conveys powerfully the atmosphere of the hospital ward and the fluctuating mental state of Ernaux’s mother. The senses are assailed by strong smells, odd sights, distressing sounds, and the floors are often sticky with urine. Or Ernaux finds faeces in a drawer where she expected there to be chocolate. Ladies are often exposed wearing nappies or else no underwear at all. The possessions that Ernaux brings in for her mother, clothes or personal effects, mysteriously disappear and are never seen again. We should bear in mind that this is a care setting over thirty years ago, so nowadays there might be more emphasis on personalising the care offered. Nevertheless, everything that’s described could be seen in some or other care setting right now.

There are references to earlier times in the lives of both women. Clearly, the mother was not one to waste time on unnecessary displays of fondness, but it’s also clear that they have a very close if ambiguous bond. Much of the time, the changes in her mother’s decline are unbearable to behold. There are instances when the mother will suddenly use stock social phrases that she did in the past. At times there are moments of real connection. But there’s a lot more frustration and desperation. The title of the book was taken from the last sentence in an unfinished letter by the mother to a friend, probably the last thing she wrote. It is obviously apt.

The impact of the mother’s death upon the writer is brilliantly observed. An ordinary visit takes place on 6th April. On 7th April, she is dead, and everything is different. Except things are the same, like the sprig of forsythia that Ernaux brought in the day before and placed in a jar of water. It often happens that someone has a life-limiting condition, like severe dementia, and yet the actual day that they die comes as a complete surprise. Its timing seems arbitrary. It’s hard to believe that, for example, there’s nobody to go and visit any more. This book gives a great account of that shock and the rending feelings that accompany it. A tour de force.

 

I Remain in Darkness, by Annie Ernaux. Published by Fitzcarraldo, London, 2019.

ISBN 978-1-910695-97-5

 

Tom Dening

January 2020

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