Forgetting Foster by Dianne Touchell

by | Jun 8, 2016

On Monday night, at Boffins in Perth, I was honoured to launch Dianne Touchell’s latest novel, Forgetting Foster (Allen & Unwin). It was a special event fitting for such a special book.

Here is an excerpt from the launch speech, in case you haven’t already pre-ordered a copy and need any reasons (apart from the fact it’s Dianne Touchell’s latest) to buy it:

Foster is seven years old, and his adored, adoring father, the teller of stories, the General to his troops, is changing.

He is not just forgetting things – he is forgetting who he is.

The horribly typical path of early onset Alzheimer’s – a disease that hits as indiscriminately as cancer, but has no illuminating hope of cure – is shown here from a child’s eyes.

We see the personality change, the collapse of personhood, the loss of dignity, happening to Foster’s dad.

When he leaves bacon burning on the stove.

When he uses his story voice – the voice he uses for all the stories he tells his son – to his clients over the phone.

When he cries at the dinner table.

He displays behaviour that could be seen as funny – from putting on the wrong socks, to saying out loud the things that are normally kept to yourself – to behaviour in which the loss of dignity is shown, like pissing himself in church – an act misattributed to poor Foster, who suffers being blamed by his classmates until he finally is forced to betray his father to save himself.

Dianne brilliantly describes Foster’s dad as having ‘a hole in his head’, one that was ‘becoming bigger and bigger until even a reminder could no longer nudge the forgotten thing back into place.’

The effect of his father’s illness on Foster is described pithily:

‘[Foster] was unprepared for how much a change in someone else could wilt the pieces of himself he thought he knew best.’

Dianne shows not only the wrenching changes inside the family, but the way they are misunderstood and unrepresented outside of it.

We see the lack of understanding from children and the adults who should know better.

We see people who prey on the family’s vulnerability, from the meddling, uninvited sister, through to the neighbour who is cruel to Foster and his father, but who presents herself as only wanting to help.

We see a world in which the services provided by aged care don’t fit the family: when Foster looks at pamphlets from the service providers Foster sees ‘pictures of well-dressed, happy old people doing craft and playing board games. It occurred to Foster that there were no people in the pictures like Dad.’

Like early onset Alzheimer’s itself, a story about Alzheimer’s is never going to have a happy ending.

But this story is made not only bearable but radiant by Foster himself, who is something I thought I would never say about a Touchell character – sweet and appealing, as well as smart and uncompromising.

His innocent negotiation of his father’s illness is rendered through Dianne’s impeccable prose.

Foster’s father has taught him well: rituals help make sense of the unfathomable.

It is the loss of the rituals that mean most to Foster which provide the emotional knot at the heart of this novel.

But the ritual that does endure, through the loss and the confusion, from symptoms of early onset to its diagnosis, is the ritual of telling stories.

At the beginning of Forgetting Foster, we have the father wielding the power of narrative in the Foster’s classroom:

[Excerpt from p 5 of the novel]

This excerpt also shows Dianne’s remarkable facility with the perfect simile, embedded in the prosaic, making the language both literary and accessible, and showing that those qualities are not mutually exclusive.

The father has given the gift of storytelling to his son, and Forgetting Foster closes with the son returning the gift to his father.

It is a redemption of sorts for the bystanders of a disease for which no redemption is possible.

I don’t know how Dianne wrote this book without breaking into a million pieces.

There has been an inexplicable rise in early onset Alzheimer’s disease in Australia.

More than 25,000 people under 65 have been diagnosed with it, and there are concerns that many others are misdiagnosed with stress and depression, or alcoholism, or other types of mental illness.

There are about 5000 people in aged care facilities – services that are often not equipped to deal with younger people with Alzheimer’s.

This increasing incidence of early onset, combined with later average ages of parenthood, means that Foster’s story is going to become more common.

Which makes this beautiful book even more vital.

It will change the way we think about the children of parents with early onset.

It will begin a conversation we have not yet had in this country.

But you don’t have to buy this book for political reasons.

Buy it because it is quite simply Dianne Touchell’s best novel yet.

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