Saturday, 26 September 2020

Caregiver Horrorshow: Lynn Coady's Watching You Without Me

Cover of Watching You Without MeI classify this book as a psychological thriller of the type in which a dangerous person has entered the protagonist's house. In this book's case, the danger has entered the house because the protagonist has invited the danger inside, much like in some traditions of the vampire. Trevor, the danger, is not a literal vampire, but his neediness imitates the vampire's dependence on others for sustenance.

Trevor is a home care worker for Kelli, the developmentally-disabled older sister of the narrator, Karen. Karen and Kelli's mother Irene has died, and Karen must now look after her sister. At first Karen interprets the scope of this new responsability as mainly the finalization of Kelli's installation into a continuing care facility that Irene has already selected. Karen, however, must in the meantime navigate her life through newness such as the schedule of the health care workers who had been helping the ailing Irene with some of Kelli's needs, such as bathing her and taking her for a walk. Trevor is the person who has been walking Kelli, and it seems as though Kelli is fond of Trevor. 

Karen understands, slowly, that in many ways Trevor became a surrogate son. Karen left Nova Scotia years ago, and that departure represented the emotional distance that had been widening between Irene and Karen since adolescence. Karen resisted Irene's attempts at instilling her values of self-sacrifice and religious faith onto Karen. Teenaged Karen didn't view her mother as a saint but as someone who tried to impose moral perfection. After moving to Toronto, getting herself a career, a marriage, and a divorce, Karen returns home to face her mother's arguments all over again. Trevor is one of the people who sees Irene as a saint. Furthermore, he seems to have adopted her moral formula for life.

Trevor is not, it turns out, a saint. Karen sees this at first, but self-loathing kicks in, and she reinterprets her past as evidence of her inability to see the truth of things. Karen doesn't see Kelli as a burden, but she realizes that many people who offer help need help themselves. This understanding alters her view of people such as Trevor as well as Karen's old friend Jessica, now a real estate agent and insistently "with it" person who suffered a traumatic childhood. At the same time, though, Karen's revised view makes her vulnerable. Both Jessica and Trevor see this, and act accordingly.

What pleased me at the outset was the sense of humour, a black humour to be sure, but a well-considered humour given that, I imagine, caregivers experience things that demand the ability to appreciate the strange beauty of complications that arise, as they do for Karen because, for example, Kelli hates elevators and has been drinking too much pop. Along with the humour, tension arises from the obstacles Karen faces outside and especially inside her newly narrowed world. I couldn't put the book down, I must confess. However, it ends more or less the way I expected it to, and I felt cheated; I'm not a devotee of the thriller genre because I know how they end, and I generally stay away from the genre accordingly. Still, the ending is a bit unusual. Is Kelli, in the end, a manifestation of God?

Lynn Coady's Watching You Without Me is the second novel I have read recently in which the author basically apologizes for the ending. The first was Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. That book devotes many pages to its lament over reader expectations for a clear-cut ending since life never turns out that way. But people know that, no? My sense with Tartt's book is that Tartt may have wondered how to end the book, a fair enough question considering how long that book is and how long it took her to write it. Thankfully, Coady's version of this apologia is much shorter. Still, I didn't think the book needed to warn the reader that it may not end the way the reader would like. I consider an unusual ending to be a feature, not a flaw. As a result, Coady's book has more substance than other thrillers I have read.

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