Disclosure: I received a copy of The Gingerbread House* for review. The opinions below are my own and unbiased.
Tess loses her job in copywriting, and she decides that it’s finally time to take her chances as a writer. So when her 90 year old mother-in-law’s carer goes on holiday, Tess steps in to cover for her. Three weeks at The Gingerbread House will give her a great start on her book. Tess’s teenage daughter Katia goes along with her as well.
But Eleanor has dementia, and even Tess has underestimated how hard it is to care full time for a relative with dementia. The stress of the situation soon takes its toll on Tess, and there’s nothing that Katia can do to help.
Last year I read two books about women with dementia, but The Gingerbread House is very different to either of them. It doesn’t have the gloss of Still Alice, and Eleanor is definitely not the pleasant, dotty old lady of Elizabeth is Missing. Instead, Kate Beaufoy takes a very blunt look at a health issue which is going to become more and more prevalent in the coming years.
Eleanor is often unpleasant to her daughter-in-law. Not intentionally of course, but some of the things that happen in this book really made me wince. In caring for Eleanor, Tess has to literally do everything for her, and this ‘warts and all’ account makes for tough reading at times. I know that I had not really considered the full impact that dementia has on both the person living with dementia and also their family. Tess turns to a glass of wine for comfort, as many of us would in her situation, but that brings problems of its own.
The Gingerbread House is narrated by Tess’s daughter Katia, and I think this really added an interesting element to the story. She sees what is happening with a certain level of detachment, and so the reader gets a different viewpoint than if the book was Tess’s story alone. It’s hard for her to see her mother so upset and there is very little that she can do.
Even though the subject matter makes for difficult reading at times, Kate Beaufoy’s writing is beautiful throughout. Each of the main characters is vividly described, and I felt that I knew them well by the end of the novel. There are a handful of other characters, including Tess’s husband, but the majority of the book focuses on life at the house. It really gives you a sense of the claustrophobia that Tess must feel, even though she knows that she is only there for a few weeks.
More and more of us will be touched in some way by dementia in the coming years. Either because we are living with the condition ourselves, or because we know someone who is. Books like The Gingerbread House play an important role in opening up discussion on dementia, and hopefully that will help to to reduce the fear and stigma around the condition.
Nestled among cherry trees in a picturesque country garden, the Gingerbread House resembles an illustration from an old-world storybook. But beware! For in the fairy-tale, that s where the witch lives…
Away from the city, with no distractions, the Gingerbread House seems like the perfect place to start work on a novel. That’s what former advertising copywriter Tess thinks when she goes there to live with Eleanor, her aged mother-in-law. But Eleanor is suffering from dementia, and caring for her proves tougher than Tess could ever have imagined: feeling increasingly isolated, her only comfort is wine o’clock and weekend visits from her husband. Meanwhile her 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.
The Gingerbread House is a deeply moving novel: a compassionate and occasionally wickedly funny tale of a family’s agonising struggle with dementia.
A beautiful and moving novel that addresses a very tough subject matter : 8.5/10