Louisa Young’s latest book is a memoir. And as the title indicates, it is memoire of her life with her boyfriend Robert Lockhart who suffered from alcoholism. What is so great is so great about the book is that it does not try to be a cautionary tale. Young does not want it to be soppy tragic story. Instead she writes intelligently about the difficulties of loving a person who is ill. She describes the good times and bad times Robert gave her. As she writes: ‘He was the best of men, he was the worst of men’.
Young first met Robert when they were teenagers and they had years of being on the verge of becoming a couple, but never quite getting there. Both have other relationships and have children with other people. It is not until they are in their forties that they become a couple. But by then Robert has fallen deep into alcoholism. Life with him becomes a real challenge and the two of them must fight to keep Robert alive.
It is easy to see what Louisa saw in Robert. He was a super talented pianist and composer who stands out in Oxford for his northern and lower middle-class origins. But although he goes through a class journey, he retained his northern accent and pride in his origins. Louisa describes herself as the insecure privileged girl, curious about this boy who is so different.
“He was pale and interesting. I was more pink and interested.”
I, through reading this book, have become a great fan of the man’s unpretentiousness (he was the sort of person who smoked whilst brushing his teeth!) He was funny, music loving, eloquent and intelligent with a large appetite for life. To him ‘everything existed to be flirted with or consumed’.
“The point is not to make him out as a wonderful human being. He wasn’t. And was. Like most of us.“
That does not mean that Young shies away from describing the horrors of Robert’s illness. On the contrary. When he was sober he was witty, funny, supportive of Louisa’s career and wanting to be a part of his son’s life. But the dark patches he went through were super dark. His illness affected his son and Louisa’s daughter (I wonder how they feel about reading this book?). Drink turns him into a self-sabotaging, self-absorbed asshole. She also describes how the heavy drinking ruined his health. At one point the doctors tell him he has three years left to live. Alcohol can be as destructive and as deadly as drugs.
Young manages to depict and discuss how loving an addict affects you in an extremely intelligent and moving fashion. And she does with such emotion (she give us the entire register: compassion, anger, tender love) and a beautiful turn of phrase (if you have read any of her other books you know Young writes like a goddess!). The journey she went through is harrowing. From thinking that love can cure anything, she learns how little loved ones can do in the face of addiction. She depicts in detail the struggle between wanting to save her boyfriend’s life, needing to save herself and being furious with him (she reflects on whether you really can be angry at someone for their illness as you do not choose to be an alcoholic). She also describes her own need to romanticise Robert, both while he was alive and now after his death. It is both a survival technique to her and an outcome of her being a writer and thus romantic by default.
“Everyone knows the romantic hero must be flawed. How else can the heroine save him?”
After having read this book, I am left in awe of the strength of both Louisa and Robert! I will not (hopefully) ever understand what they fought their way through. On top of his drinking, Robert developed cancer. Again he an illness threatened to kill him. Louise got to see the very different ways society reacts to cancer and alcoholism – very different reactions to two very similar conditions. Both are potentially deadly, no one chooses to have either. But for cancer there is a completely different level of support available; from the NHS to leaflets (there are no leaflets about dealing with money and alcohol or sex and alcohol, like there is for cancer). Which condition is worse? They probably cannot be compared but Robert said at one point that he would rather go through cancer again than go back to drinking.
As a linguist, I loved Louisa’s reflections on how we talk about people who have cancer or a drinking problem. For instance, we say that people have cancer, but that a person is an alcoholic. For some reason, one illness allows for the presence of an individual, but the other makes the illness itself the most prominent characteristic of the sufferer.
If you are a fan of Young’s novels set during and in the aftermath of WW1, you will greatly enjoy (as I did) to learn how so much of those books were informed by Louisa’s life with Robert. Like Robert, her hero Riley Purefoy is a socially mobile working class man who struggles to find a place to fit in. He is not really accepted in the community he came from and he is never really accepted into the working classes. She also writes that her character Peter’s drinking problem was inspired by Robert’s illness. And Robert’s grandfather Ainsworth fought in the war. Yes, the beloved character Ainsworth was a real person!!
Young is very aware of the irony of her writing a book about a man that looses a part of his jaw and must relearn to talk, and then her boyfriend develops throat cancer and must have parts of his mouth removed and must relearn to talk.
Read this book! Young is absolutely honest about her life with and love for Robert. She is also honest about how writing this book is both away of bringing his close to her again, and that it is a process that removes her from him in some way. She has an important message and delivers it beautifully!