Stammered Songbook. A Mother’s Book of Hours by Erwin Mortier
I have been reviewing books from Pushkin Press for about a year. It is probably a publisher that many readers might not be aware of. It publishes a variety of books from literary to crime by international authors that might not be well known in English translation or whose books were published in the last century.
Stammered Songbook. A Mother’s Book of Hours by Belgian author Erwin Mortier, translated by Paul Vincent, is a particularly fine example of what Pushkin Press has to offer because it blends superb literary writing in the non-fiction arena to give a real insight into a medical condition that medical texts and self-help books cannot.
Stammered Songbook is a detailed study, many would say an ethnographic one, of Mortier’s mother as Alzheimer’s disease takes her over. It is not a subject many would want to tackle, but one that Mortier’s writing illuminates in a way that not only makes the reading of such a debilitating condition bearable, but provides an in depth perspective both of its effects on the person suffering from it and the family.
So how do you write a book about your mother, who is not only losing a bit of herself every day, but also the knowledge of the type of emotional security the warmth of a loving family provides, just because she does not know it is there? You write it with love, tenderness, humour, and exquisitely.
The perfectly balanced humour comes early on, quickly establishing the worsening condition as well as summing up how Mortier and his family are coping with the inexorable decline of the keystone of their lives. ‘Today my mother gave me a thorough dusting thinking I was a piece of furniture. Perhaps a chest of drawers or an old cooker.’
He slips from past to present, describing the vibrant woman who fed and nurtured her family and the resultant shell of a person, terrified by the slightest change to her environment; fearfully clinging to people she should, but doesn’t know.
This is not a book wallowing in self-pity, but a careful study executed with the most delicate and beautiful writing. By using the register of a poet, Mortier is able to get right to the heart of what Alzheimer’s is in real terms, even if it does makes the heart ache to read it.