Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
This novel begins with the line, ‘Tonight a man found Dad’s pants in a tree lit with Christmas lights.’ In that first sentence lie two clues about the content of this wonderful novel. The first indicates that there is a great deal of humour within. The second is that Goodbye, Vitamin is a story about the onset of dementia with a parent.
Ruth Young has just turned thirty and her life is beginning to unravel. Her boyfriend has left her for another and the treacherous pair seem happy. More’s the pity, thinks Ruth. But matters become worse when her academic father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Howard Young was always a difficult man, but he doted on his children, particularly his eldest, Ruth. Howard’s errant behaviour at home only became chronic when Ruth left for college, and it was her brother, Linus, who bore the brunt of it as Howard’s wife stoically endured. During a Christmas visit home, Ruth’s mum asks if she will help with Howard for one year. It’s a big request and one not made lightly. But Ruth can’t refuse and so leaves her job in San Francisco to move home to LA, where she is thrust into the world and failing mind of someone who to her is so substantial. Howard is losing himself piece by painful piece as his loved ones look on.
This is a glorious and timely novel. At a time when, in western societies, there are more OAPs than ever, the topic of dementia is more relevant than ever. It’s an issue that will affect us all in one way or another eventually. It might even be regarded as one of the worst diseases possible as the sufferer slowly disintegrates from the person they were, making victims of not only themselves, but of their families also.
You would be forgiven for running like the Hammers of Hell from such a book. You might think it gloomy, grey, heavy and complicated. You’d be wrong. Goodbye, Vitamin is a tenderly presented look at a tough subject. The story is wrapped in humour, not gaudy or inappropriate, but respectful. It takes us on Ruth’s journey as she comes to understand her father, the man, as opposed to the loving authority figure from her childhood. In doing so, she also gets a better insight into who her mother and brother are.
As Howard’s condition begins to show more clearly, his family and friends rally around. Although they act with the best of intent, sometimes their kindness backfires, such as when they fake classes for him to lecture to at the college from which he has been recently relieved of duties. The problem with Howard, and sufferers of dementia in general, is that there is a great deal of inconsistency in their behaviour and mental faculties. Sometimes they are normal and fully there with you, but increasingly they are not. Ruth and her mother struggle to find the balance between taking care of Howard properly and yet not smothering or robbing him of his dignity. It’s a difficult task.
Goodbye, Vitamin is an education in itself. The author provides insight into Alzheimer’s and the accepted thinking surrounding it. The information is inserted seamlessly into the story-line. It’s clear that Rachel Khong has researched her topic meticulously.
But this story is not just about the unfortunate effects of the aging process. It’s also about a young woman searching for her own place in life. The reader will come to admire Ruth for her strength, compassion and great humility. It’s a poignant tale told very well. Throughout, we are permitted to read little notes that Howard scribbled about his daughter as she was growing up. He records, ‘Today, we went over to your mother’s friend’s house for dinner. We’d asked you to be polite, so you said, “No more please, it’s horrible thank you'”. Howard also notes, ‘Today you put sand into the microwave. You said you were making glass’, as well as, ‘Today you bit off the corners of your sandwich and announced you were taking the edge off.’ Ruth reads these snippets of her childhood that her father felt needed to be kept. It’s clear how much Howard loved his daughter.
Yet, as the story progresses, we see a heart-breaking reversal of roles as Ruth records, ‘Today I cooked salmon and you said it was esculent’, and ‘Today you washed your shoelaces’, and ‘Today you disappeared again and scared the shit out of us’, and ‘Today we ate grapes from a mug and met a white dog that looked like David Bowie’ and ‘Today you held your open hand out and I shook the pills into it, same as every day.’
There are many books that deal with the topic of dementia. But you will travel a fair while before you discover one that affords such respect to the patient. You will also struggle to find a story that will bring a lump to your throat in recognition of what is being lost, as well as a smile to your face in how it gradually disappears.
Goodbye, Vitamin is Rachel Kong’s first novel. Hopefully, it won’t be her last as if this novel is anything to go by then this author has a very fine literary future ahead of her.
Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. Recommended for its plot, subject matter, characters and general demeanour. This book deals sensitively with a troubling topic. It will make you smile and perhaps weep. But it will ultimately wrap you in a warm and melancholic embrace.