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Thursday, 4 June 2009
by Elizabeth H Winthrop
I have to confess I nearly didn’t buy this book after a glance at the text showed it was told in the present tense – something, in my view, very few writers can carry off. Still, I bought the book anyway, and I’m glad I did.
The story, told simply and without exaggeration, is about Wilson Carter, his wife Ruth and their 11-year old, intelligent and imaginative daughter, Isabelle, who hasn’t spoken for 9 months. Doctors and psychiatrists haven’t helped, with the most recent pronouncing her a ‘lost cause’.
Wilson, haunted by memories of happier times, tries to come up with plans to bring those times back. Ruth, who has given up her job to look after Isabelle, feels she must have done something wrong as a parent. And Isabelle, though sorry for the grief she is causing, can no longer find a way through her self-imposed barrier.
As the title suggests, the story takes place over the month of December. The family is preparing for Christmas, trying to put a brave face on the situation while at the same time finding it more and more unbearable. Wilson and Ruth have conflicting ideas of how to help their daughter and what to say in front of her. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that Ruth’s brother, a former soldier, is convinced he’s being spied on. On top of that, Isabelle’s beloved dog has cancer - something her parents try to keep from her, worried about her mental state.
For all the angst, this is a warm book, without slipping into sentiment. I found myself identifying with the characters’ fears and frustrations, with a sense of bewilderment that something like this should happen to a perfectly nice, ordinary family.
And it doesn’t suffer at all from being in the present tense.
Reviewed by Rebecca Holmes