The Inconvenient Need to Belong by Paula Smedley – a novel of a life time

 

A long life is made up of many things; memories, actions and regrets. Alfie is a man who finds himself in a care home with all its petty rules and time tables and so makes his small acts of rebellion. He knows that the man he is now, lonely, frustrated and angry is the product of his past actions, the choices he has made, but also the reaction to his strict upbringing. He has kept his past a secret for so long, almost from himself, but his angry loneliness is noticeable. His rituals allow him to begin to recall his past in all its pain, but also in the little touches of joy he relates. His interest in others leads to small kindnesses and compassion for them. This is a book written with enormous understanding and empathy, answering the question of what happens to leave a person without apparent family or friends. It is a careful and honestly written account of a life of people in difficult circumstances at different ages and for different reasons. I found it a very readable novel and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

Most of the narration of Alfie’s story is not straight forward. He is a resident of a very basic and underfunded care home, who rebels by sneaking away to a local park and feeding the birds during visiting time on a Saturday. He encounters a young man who has nothing to say, so he begins to recount his life story.

This book is so well constructed that it gives an accurate picture of life in a care home, with the small touches of well observed dialogue and behaviour, such as the jokey alternatives to Rosalind’s plaque. Life is restricted to discussion of meals, the obvious sadness of those ignored by relatives, and the changing of library books. 

Alfie first appears as a twenty year old in 1953, departing from his family home at night. The details of exactly why only emerge gradually, but he is especially sad to leave his younger sister Betty from the very beginning. His strict upbringing means that he struggles to chat freely with others, he has no or very little experience of women outside his family, and he has no tolerance for the alcohol he soon encounters in a social setting. He meets with kindness and opportunity from the first, partly in the form of his landlady to take in lodgers for company as much as money. His innocence means that he falls in love with the first young woman he sees, leading to problems which change his life. The continuation of his story is informative and asutely written, showing careful and effective research into life in the period. 

Julia is a character which reveals much about the difficulties she encounters as a woman in today’s society. There are also the touching glimpses into the contemporary life of Anne, a young American woman. It is touches like this that lifts this book from a fictional biography to a realistic story of a life as it is lived. I found this to be a profound story, a lovely explanation of how a man gets to be alone in a care home. It is at once a contemporary story and historical fiction. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys an honest novel of a life.

 

This book works because of the curiosity we all feel about the lives of others in our community. The current discussion about care homes make this an interesting and apposite book at the moment. It is a moving read, and it is so easy to become invested in the story of Alfie. It certainly adds to the variety of books to be found on this website!


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