Profile Books, £12.99
Review: Rosemary Goring
One of the unexpected advantages of becoming a bestselling novelist, Kate Mosse discovered, was that she had more time to take care of her ageing parents. When her father Richard Mosse’s Parkinson’s disease grew worse, he and her mother moved into an annexe of her house. This rambling place in Chichester, a former hostel and care home “with a strong smell of mould and stray cats”, sat on a corner where three roads meet. It sounds like the setting for a Daphne du Maurier novel, but the drama in Mosse’s book revolves not around high adventure, but the far from thrilling and all-too eventful process of helping those of advancing years and declining health.
While three roads met outside, within the house three generations settled contentedly, their numbers rising when Mosse’s redoubtable mother-in-law Granny Rosie arrived. That was 12 years ago. While 90-year-old Rosie remains reasonably hale, in the past decade Mosse watched as her father’s disease progressed and, three years after his death, her mother died too.
As this book describes, she – and her husband Greg and two children – provided an extra pair of hands, and much else besides. This slim and poignant work rolls several books in one. A tribute to Mosse’s parents and mother-in-law – “three extraordinary people” – it also offers reflections on what it means to care for parents as you reach middle age, a process she describes as a “disquieting role reversal”.
To this, Mosse adds succinct observations on the state of the care industry in the UK, branching off occasionally into other areas: “The language around ageing needs to change … from something seen as a regrettable challenge to a sign of success.” She offers advice as well: “Enjoy the good days, muddle through the bad days, and never take anything for granted.” Simple stuff, you might think, but Mosse has a talent for putting the everyday into words, and turning the seemingly banal, and the sadly inevitable, into something lasting.
Although the statistics and commentary feel as if they have been shoehorned in, to give a political spine to a work that is already full of purpose, Mosse is genuinely eager to see the wider picture. She notes that she has been fortunate in being both able and willing to take in her family. Yet she does not hide the emotional and physical toll. The endurance and stamina required of the elderly outweigh everyone else’s efforts, but this does not diminish what falls to the carer. Taking on this responsibility, she admits, suddenly creates “a parallel life running alongside your own”.
It is when she writes of her mother and father that the tone of An Extra Pair of Hands grows elegiac. Describing the marshes where she would walk for solace, as her father’s condition worsened, she brings a writerly eye to the landscape: “Chill autumn days at dusk. Gulls and curlews shrieking out at sea and the hawthorn bushes stark and bare.” As he declines, readers could not fail to be touched by his dignity, and his daughter’s love. So too when her mother’s time comes. And now, as Grannie Rosie begins to falter, you sense the same shades drawing in. Except that, as the most vibrant character in the book, Rosie’s one-liners bring a splash of colour to the page as well as to Mosse’s life.
Horse-mad, and a fiendish keyboard player, her individuality has never faded. On a trip with her on the Orient Express 10 years ago, Mosse heard familiar tunes coming over the airwaves. “I raced back to the Piano Bar from our cabin to find a row of gin and tonics lined up along the shining black lid and Rosie, singing her heart out, surrounded by fellow passengers asking for requests.”
Such moments, and memories of happy times with her own parents, are the leavening in this moving, sorrowful account. But it is also uplifting. Mosse’s warmth and sensitivity show that, at its best, the carer’s relationship with the one who needs a hand is not that of burden and pack-horse but of equals, travelling the same bumpy road.