I was recently asked why I had chosen to tackle issues such as breast cancer and dementia in my novel The Last Wave. My answer was simple: these are the things that make up our lives. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, every three minutes someone in the UK will develop dementia.
Illness, sickness, ailments - these are all things that I have grown used to coping with in my day to day life. I’ve been lucky enough to escape diseases like the ones I’ve made my characters Martha and John suffer through, but what I have experienced after being diagnosed with spinal arthritis and Crohn’s disease was that it’s difficult for people to think of you - for a while at least - as something other than your disease.
The way Martha’s children find out about her cancer diagnosis was intended to allow her to put cancer in its place: it’s a pest, yet another thing that she has to put up with. Martha doesn’t want to give the disease more power than it deserves. The way she reacts to her diagnosis was intended to convey her attitude towards it: it’s something else she has to conquer, like the Channel. It’s a way for her of reclaiming ground lost to a disease, of asserting herself, and not allowing her character to be lost or overtaken by a disease.
With John’s dementia I was interested in describing how those closest to him would deal with his symptoms. My Grammy suffered from dementia and it was incredibly hard watching my Mom as she witnessed her own mother disappearing. What really struck me about that was how unprepared we were, how we had to quickly cobble things together to make do until a better solution could be found. Initially, my Grammy lived in a condo with a doorman, who would phone my mother with reports of increasingly unusual behaviour: late night trips into the parking garage, muttering about dinner guests who never arrived. When their children Harriet and Iain have to come together to take care of their parents, that feeling of being incapable, of not knowing what’s best, was foremost on my mind.
These are things we’re all likely to encounter in our lives, so it was natural to include them in The Last Wave. But I didn’t want to include them as the sole focus of the character’s lives, I wanted to show them mixed up and in with the daily goings-on of an everyday life, because that’s what feels most natural. A diagnosis doesn’t replace a personality, one aspect of a character does not make a whole.