I’ve been reading more non-fiction and more translated fiction this year but not very much translated non-fiction. After reading Flemish author Erwin’ Mortier’s ‘While the Gods Were Sleeping‘ earlier this year which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I got hold of a copy of ‘Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours’ which is Mortier’s personal memoir documenting his mother’s diagnosis, decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 65. Originally published in 2011, it has recently been translated from Dutch into English for the first time by Paul Vincent and has been longlisted for the Green Carnation Prize this week which celebrates LGBT writing.
At just 176 pages in length, ‘Stammered Songbook’ is a concise and affecting memoir with Mortier detailing his caring responsibilities which he shared with his father and siblings as his mother’s symptoms got progressively worse. Mortier pieces together fragments of his mother’s memories from her past as well as his own childhood memories as a way of trying to make sense of what is happening to her. Memory is a central theme in both books and I think those who enjoy Mortier’s fiction should also read ‘Stammered Songbook’. There are some poetic elements to his prose in ‘Stammered Songbook’ but I found Mortier’s writing (and Vincent’s translation) in ‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ to be much more dense in comparison.
While the subject matter certainly isn’t an easy one to deal with, ‘Stammered Songbook’ isn’t as harrowing as it could have been. It doesn’t feel at all overdone in any way, partly due to its well-judged brevity. Much like Emma Healey’s fictional work Elizabeth is Missing which showed the impact of dementia with compassion and even some occasional glimpses of humour, ‘Stammered Songbook’ is not a wholly morbid account. Nevertheless, it is clear that it is his mother’s declining ability to communicate followed by her emotional rather than physical absence which makes dementia such a devastating disease.
‘Stammered Songbook’ is a moving and profound book. Many thanks to Pushkin Press for sending me a review copy of Stammered Songbook via NetGalley.