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May

Naomi Kruger
ISBN-13: 
9781781724286
Publication Date: 
Monday, March 12, 2018
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‘A deftly-written and highly moving account of the effects of dementia’ – Everybody’s Reviewing

‘A triumph... contemporary, funny, relevant and personal’ – Buzz Magazine
 

The door to the past has been locked to May but fragments of memories still remain: a boy running on the green, his fiery hair, a letter without a stamp, a secret she promised not to tell. She can’t piece together the past or even make sense of the present, but she revisits what she knows again and again. The boy, the letter, the secret. She can’t grasp what they mean, but maybe the people she’s loved and lost can uncover the mystery of the red-headed boy and his connection to May.

Like memories, the book moves through the decades, weaving together the lives of May’s family and the woman who cares for her at the nursing home. Their recollections are linked by feelings of doubt, remorse and a sense that they are mourning the paths their lives could have taken. Aftershocks from the past reverberate in the present.

Afsana remembers her mischievous sister, Amina, and her stoic grandmother, the family she left behind to pursue a forbidden relationship. Karen recalls a chance encounter with a charming man and the drink that inevitably led to more. Alex regrets the indecision that left him stuck in the town he was born in while the girl he cares about travels the world alone. Arthur pursues the woman of his dreams but reflects on the times he didn’t say enough. Like May, they are each trapped by the past and struggle to envisage their futures. It is only when their stories are connected that the fragments of the past become whole, and the secrets haunting May are finally revealed.

Naomi Kruger’s debut novel is a contemplative tale of what it means to carry the past with you and the power of letting it go.

 

 

REVIEWS

Review by Margaret Brecknell, Northern Soul

Monday, August 27, 2018

 

Having lost two close family members to dementia, I am interested in portrayals of this dreadful illness in literature but have often been disappointed by its presentation. For that reason, I found myself instinctively drawn to Naomi Krüger’s debut novel, May, in which the title character is a dementia sufferer trying to unlock a secret from her past. What makes this story so unusual is that the author has given a voice to the dementia sufferer.

Naomi Krüger’s day job is as a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Central Lancashire. When we met up recently near her office in Preston, I was curious to know what had inspired her to write about such a difficult subject. 

“I visited an old family friend who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Her short-term memory may have been faulty, but she started asking me about things I had forgotten about from my own childhood.  Everything seemed to be flipped on its head. I became really fascinated with memory. I didn’t base the character of May on my friend, but from there I knew I wanted to write about memory and about dementia in some way.”

=The novel tells the story of May, a confused old lady in a care home who is seemingly obsessed with the memory of a young red-haired boy from her past. The reader follows May’s thoughts over the course of a single day as she tries to unravel the mystery in her own head. But May’s story only forms part of the narrative. We also learn more about May through the eyes of her loved ones and via a young woman who works as a carer at the home. The novel moves skilfully backwards and forwards through the decades, weaving together the story of May’s own life with that of her husband, daughter, grandson and carer. The way in which May’s story interconnected with that of the other characters in the book particularly appealed to me as, in real life, it so often seems that the dementia sufferer is no longer treated as an integral part of a family or community.

“The choice to have different voices in the book was in some ways a practical one,” Krüger explains. “It would have been hard to sustain a whole novel in such a fragmented style. However, I also wanted to portray May not as this lonely figure descending into darkness, but alongside the voices of the other characters who are struggling with their own problems.”

The theme of memory loss and searching for something that is seemingly lost forever is, by its very nature, a bleak subject on which to base a novel. But Krüger was keen to represent the whole topic of dementia in a more positive way than is often the case.

“I think we do have to find more hopeful ways to represent dementia. I didn’t want to present all the horrors and make it so bleak. On the other hand, I didn’t want to trivialise it because it affects so many people and can be incredibly painful, so that was a really hard balance. I wanted to be realistic but also show that there can be hope and moments of humour.”

Krüger has succeeded in achieving the right balance. The story of May’s personal struggle is told in a sensitive manner and even she is given her lighter moments when, for instance, she suddenly breaks into song. Her carer Afsana’s struggle to break free from the restrictions imposed on her by her family and domineering partner works exceptionally well as a supporting story to the main narrative. Like May, her struggle at times seems hopeless but, by the end of the book, there are hints that a brighter future may await the young woman.

The novel is set in and around the Preston area in which Krüger grew up and still lives. This also happens to be my home patch and her depiction of the area certainly captures the essence of the place. The author admits that this was in some ways a practical choice, but also suited the background to May’s character.

“There have been several representations of dementia where the sufferer has been a neurosurgeon or an architect.  I wanted May to be someone who, on the surface, appears quite ordinary and not particularly visible but she still matters. The setting seemed right for that.”  

Krüger first came up with the idea for May while still a student at Lancaster University and had to face several (in her words) “generous” rejection letters before securing a contract with the independent literary publisher, Seren Books. It was worth the wait. Kruger has produced a compelling and multi-layered story of an old lady with dementia which goes far beyond the usual stereotypical depictions of the illness in literature. 

May has been recently long listed for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ award, an outstanding achievement for a debut novel. The story may well have resonated with me for personal reasons, but clearly I am not alone in being touched by this sensitive and thought-provoking book.

Review by Megan Thomas, Buzz Magazine

Monday, June 25, 2018

Naomi Kruger’s debut novel, May, is a triumph. We follow the contours of dementia through our primary character May over one day in an old age home. Her chapters form a series of memories and a stream of consciousness that represents the confusion and diaspora of thought as well as the poetic tragedy of the illness and the human condition.

May’s day is interspersed with flashbacks from the people relevant to her life and story. Each character is valuable within their own chapters and story, as well as to May’s life. They all work together as pieces of the great puzzle that is Kruger’s story. It is done with such craft that there remains a clear structure throughout, despite its largely non-linear progression.

I was incredibly impressed with the use of first-person speaker throughout the novel, regardless of which character was speaking. This isn’t an easy task, but it was necessary and effective in portraying each character’s unique thoughts, personalities and experiences. It can be difficult to maintain a clear voice from just one character, let alone multiple characters.

The characters deal with the unglamorous occurrences of life – unhappy marriages, prejudice, peer pressure, rebellion, anxiety and much more. The plot retains a consistent realism without ever seeming boring, and was always rich in complex emotions. This, however, meant that there were points at which I thought the writing was a bit too simple for the depth of the content.

The novel is contemporary, funny, relevant and personal. It was easy to read, and constantly engaging. Reading it was a pleasure.

Review by Paul Taylor-McCartney, Everybody’s Reviewing

Saturday, May 12, 2018

This is a deftly-written and highly moving account of the effects of dementia on an elderly woman, May of the title, and those around her, including staff at the nursing home where she is resident. The story is actually centred on solving the mystery of a figure from May’s past that no-one around her can recall; and all wonder if he is merely a figment of her rapidly disassembling mind. 

Krüger uses two specific narrative devices to help convey her story and subject matter. Whole chapters are assigned to a number of unique characters - including May - each competing for our attention and wonderfully depicted. The narrative also shifts back and forth through decades, helpfully indicated by a date at the top of each chapter, which very much reflects one of the disorienting aspects of the condition: the unravelling of time itself. These alternative perspectives on May’s life allow us to see her at her worst, but also as caring wife, mother and friend, before the disease takes hold and her mental deterioration commences. Here is a central character that could be any of us; the familiar settings and landmarks of an ordinary northern town, Preston, help further ground the work in the domestic, the everyday, and give it a real authenticity.

Beyond structural experimentation, Krüger’s talent lies in the assured command of her prose. Short, rhythmic sentences relay the steady beat of conscious thought, allowing her to show subtle differences between her characters, whilst also unifying them. In May’s own chapters, the formal constraints of syntax and grammar are abandoned and prose becomes verse: “but I remember         the boy    He/runs into the trees. He doesn’t have       words.” These passages are not only beautifully written, they also contain all the clues required to assemble multiple interpretations of the novel’s conclusion. By the time it ends, the reader is very much left to reflect on the ways in which the past comes back to haunt each of us, despite our best efforts to bury it - which is especially difficult for those, like May, at the mercy of such a debilitating disease as dementia. 

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