Author Eric Rill asks for an enormous amount of trust at the beginning of his novel “An Absent Mind.” We know right away that Saul Reimer has Alzheimer’s and the whole book will make us watch him get worse through vignettes from various characters’ perspectives, including Saul’s. But Rill takes heartstrings by the fistful and makes it worthwhile with the only thing he can: love.
Saul and Monique’s marriage isn’t perfect — the only time they aren’t arguing is when they’re traveling — but it still hurts as the Alzheimer’s puts more strain on their relationship. Monique is thrown into the caregiver role, frequently remembering all the things she’s already given up for her husband and how little it means to him. After converting to Judaism, losing all her friends and never being able to get a job, how much more of a sacrifice is it to keep Saul from running down the street in his underpants again?
If only she didn’t also have to bear Saul’s suspicion. Stubbornly claiming he’s not that bad yet, Saul doesn’t trust anyone anymore. His wife and children make up the Nazis and lynchers intent on stealing his freedoms, starting with his car keys and what he eats when Monique takes him out for sushi. Even his lawyer — whom Saul believes is sleeping with his wife — just wants his money. But when he’s not imagining knives at his back, Saul’s thinking about how much he loves his wife and kids. He’s not good at expressing his feelings, but he’s terrified of not being able to tell them how proud he is of his family once the Alzheimer’s progresses.
Just like her father, Florence ignores the overwhelming sense of doom as he slowly gets worse. She is the one who refuses to treat Saul like he’s already gone when he’s just in the middle stages of his disease. To her, her father’s pride and self-esteem are all he has left and she refuses to treat him like a vegetable. He’s still a human, and he’s still a big part of the family. No disease will change that.
The slow-building tension to an inevitable end carries through each vignette, making it hard to keep going. And as everyone reminisces about what Saul was like before the disease and thinks about how they still love him, we can only cry and demand they stop keeping their feelings to themselves. It’s a lot to take in for such a short book, but it’s worth it.
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