Books

Glenda Guest
A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline

A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline slowly, gently describes a defining period in Cassie’s life when her past and present collide. The book begins as Cassie is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and decides to return home to Perth after spending most of her adult life in Sydney. Her journey westwards across Australia on the Indian Pacific forms the framework of the novel, as she contemplates what has led to this point.

Cassie takes us through her arrival in Sydney 45 years ago, and we meet the characters who affected her life: there’s Bammy, who gives her a job in his tattoo parlour, an Italian couple who bring her into their family, and a homeless woman, resolute in not wanting to be saved. Glenda Guest breathes life into disparate corners of Sydney and its “tantalising perfume”, vividly evoking place. We recede further into the past, reliving Cassie’s fraught relationship with her family, and her friendship with neighbour Mary Blanchard (formerly Marilee Kakoulas), which brings music and lightness into her life. Mary’s twins also take on a major role, which is where the story gets more interesting.

Why Cassie left home in the first place  and, to a lesser extent, how she’ll survive Alzheimer’s, propels the narrative forward, though this doesn’t gather force until well into the book. For the first half, I spent some time floundering around, not adequately engaged. The whole backstory about Cassie’s reason for leaving is compelling when we get to it, but I would have liked more detail earlier, and for there to have been more weight given to it overall.

Guest’s writing is poetic, littered with finely observed descriptions, and musings about the nature of memory and self. What will be left when she no longer has her memories? “Will memory peel away the thin onion-skins of her self as it deserts her, until just a tiny kernel is left that she can call me?” Other characters she encounters bring in literary references to help shed light, from V. S. Naipaul to Oliver Sacks. At times there’s a gravity, even formality to Guest’s sentences that can feel a little heavy-handed, and some general observations about life seem laboured. But Cassie’s connection with a man she meets on the train, and his ideas about self, brings a new energy to the present-day story. While their relationship is left open-ended we sense the future isn’t all doom and gloom.  WZ

Text, 224pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 24, 2018 as "Glenda Guest, A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: WZ