Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Life in the Gingerbread House is no fairy tale...
When Tess agrees to move into her aged mother-in-law’s idyllic country cottage, she sees it as the perfect opportunity to escape the distractions of the city and start work on a novel. However, life in the Gingerbread House is no fairy tale. Tess is utterly unprepared for the reality of caring for Eleanor, who suffers from dementia.
Feeling increasingly isolated, she struggles to cope as Eleanor fluctuates between violent mood swings, child-like dependency and moments of heart-wrenching lucidity. Meanwhile, Tess’s teenage daughter Katia is helpless to intercede; in the end she can only watch as things fall apart and a tragedy even closer to home surfaces.
When I saw Kate Beaufoy had a new book being published I was thrilled as I have been a long term fan of her work and especially have loved the different direction that her last two books have taken her in. The cover for this new book The Gingerbread House was simply stunning. It packs a punch in it's simplicity yet I could tell there was a powerful story waiting to be read. I didn't even read the blurb before beginning because I knew anything Kate publishes I want to read it no questions asked.
What surprised me initially was the length of the book at just about 200 pages I wondered was this more of a novella? Admittedly I was slightly disappointed because I was expecting a big chunky read that I really could sink my teeth in to. I really should not have had any hesitations at all because this book caught my attention right from the very first line and the more I read the more I found myself being drawn deeper into the story and the characters situation and feelings. So yes it was short and I read it in one sitting but this is the kind of book that there is so much to take from it that as soon as you are finished you feel the need to go back and reread it again. In fact this book more than deserves several re-reads to fully absorb the beauty of the writing, the message conveyed within and just to pick up on the little bits you will have missed the first or even the second time round. In two hundred pages of its length not one word, phrase, scene or sentence was not utilised to utter perfection. Everything was carefully placed and the reader can sense the time and effort that went into writing this gem of a book which although proved a hard read for the majority in the end it turned out to be faultless and is already a major highlight of my 2017 reading.
The Gingerbread House is a deeply moving novel which affected me in ways I never thought possible and I shed more than a few tears whilst reading it. It really struck a chord with me given its subject matter and I believe anyone who reads it will find something they can identify with. It is a deeply compassionate novel that follows one family's struggle to cope with an older relatives demise into dementia. This topic is not featured in books all that often and deserves to have more attention. Maybe authors are afraid they will not do the topic justice but here Kate Beaufoy has gotten to the heart of the matter with stunning affect. The harsh realities of the situation and the physical and mental toll on both the carer and the patient are written in all their glory for the reader to comprehend. I found myself having to stop everyone so often just to ponder what I had read and to take everything in. For those who may not have had someone in their family suffering from dementia they need not worry as they would also find similarities with having to cope with someone suffering a serious illness of which there is no coming back.
Tess the daughter in law of Eleanor, the person suffering through this relentless illness, is a woman doing her bit because she loves Eleanor's son Donn and she would do anything he asked of her. Being sent to the Gingerbread House of the title for three weeks whilst Eleanor's carer is away is not the ideal situation she would wish to find herself in. But when someone is in need we unquestionably drop everything and are there for that person through thick and thin. You don't stop and think I can't do this, you just get on with with it and although you find yourself doing things you never would want to do you just battle through. It's only when the situation may resolve itself in some form or other, be it happy or sad, you actually sit down and process what you have been through and begin to realise just how difficult things were, but that you did it because love and strength saw you through and you know said person would be forever grateful you did it for them and you can live comfortably with the thoughts of everything you did for them.
The Gingerbread House of the title is a house seemingly more or less isolated deep in the countryside and from the beginning there is a heavy, dark feeling almost like an oppressive weight bearing down. The atmosphere is tense and stifling and Tess finds herself dreading the daily routine of caring for Granny. The story is told from the perspective of Tess's teenage daughter Katia and I thought this was a brilliant way of telling the story as she built up a picture of Granny who is no longer the woman she once was. Routine is now everything to Granny as the moments of lucidity and sense are few and far between. It is just heartbreaking and devastating to see someone decline so much. It makes you think if you knew what was in store for you down the line would you be able to keep going or would you strive to live life to the fullest and grab every given opportunity? Katia was very very observant. She was like a shadow to her mother there for her when Tess had to do the most unpleasant of things in the care for Granny but I could identify with it all I have been through it myself although not in the form of dementia but still I found myself nodding along to everything attempting to read through the tears in my eyes.
Katia was the perfect person to tell this story and the use of the fairytale interspersed with the present day was something really different but brought an added dimension to the overall tone and feel of the story. The use of Charlotte's Web and The Little Mermaid was deftly slipped in at just the most appropriate of moments and normally I would dislike this in a story but here it worked beautifully. So much so that I found myself taking to both Tess and Katia. This book may sound like it is all doom and gloom and yes it could some readers may take that from this story but there was humour and a light touch when needed which provided a nice balance between the rigidity of Granny's routine and Eleanor and Katia's attempts at keeping everything going when they just want to give up. It's not often these days that I rave about a book and just want everyone to drop everything and read it now so I can discuss it with them but in this case The Gingerbread House is that book.
I find myself getting more and more pickier as to what makes a good book that keeps me reading and that makes me want to share that book love with others but Kate Beaufoy has written a brilliant book that has such a huge twist that was satisfyingly and successfully kept under wraps when it could have been given away all too easily. Suffice to say it tore me apart even further than I already had been and confirmed this is a sublime piece of work. I relished every bit of this incredible story and urge you to buy this book as soon as possible and treasure it for many years to come as you will come back to it more than once.
Many thanks to Black and White Publishing for my copy of The Gingerbread House to review via NetGalley and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.