I’ll admit I was dreading reading this book. It’s a memoir based on the lives of Clem Martini, his brother Olivier Martini and their mother Catherine. It includes haunting, beautiful images drawn by Olivier, who suffers from schizophrenia (although based on the book, seems to be doing an admirable job of managing it, contributing to society in a way others may not even have believed possible), and text written by Clem describing their ongoing trials with the Canadian health care system while dealing with the mental illness in their family. The Unravelling begins more or less with their mother’s diagnosis of dementia, which for them is a extra-terrible blow because Catherine is the primary caregiver of Olivier, so once she is unable to take care of herself, the situation with Olivier worsens as well.
Can you see why I was hesitant to read this? Not the most pleasant sounding book, but an ‘important’ one all the same. Regardless I picked it up, and I am SO glad I did. To my shock and amazement, I raced through this book in two days, dying to read just another page, reacting to it the way one would a fast-paced thriller. Except…this is about a family struggling to find suitable living conditions for their deteriorating mother, all while navigating a health care system that seems to isolate people and their families with mental illness, rather than help them.
So why did I love this book? I don’t have a history of mental illness in my family (knock on wood), so I can’t say I had any personal investment in this book. But, the trials of dealing with an aging parent are something I have observed in both my own and my husband’s side of the family, so I was more than familiar with those difficulties. Not to mention the fact that as I age, and my family ages with me, I will no doubt find myself in the caregiver situation of a senior in our blended family (fingers crossed I get at least a decade in between kicking my kids out of the house and welcoming an aging parent back in). We’ve all heard that the aging baby boomers are going to force society to deal with our lack of elder care head-on, and we’re just starting to find ourselves in that situation, but we do have a long way to go. This book was so relevant to me because it not only acted as a road-map for what’s ahead, but a relatable account of all the emotions one may go through when entering this time of life; helplessness, shame, embarrassment, yet undying hope that one is ‘doing the right thing’ for their family.
There’s a particularly poignant scene in the book where Clem describes accompanying his mother to the dining room of her new nursing home for lunch, and although it’s obvious she is nervous, she doesn’t want to admit it. All the other residents are staring up at the ‘new kid’, sizing up their new neighbor:
“And suddenly I’m overwhelmed by that feeling you get when you send your child to the first day of school and watch them cross the schoolyard…You want them to be liked and accepted by the others, to find friends and build a community. Only my mother doesn’t smile at anyone…(p. 168).”
Ah that passage really got to me, most likely due to the fact that I’m extremely hormonal as I write this. The circle of life!!! What a cruel world we seem to live in, exiting our life the same way we came in-helpless.
I should also mention the design of this book is quite stunning. The sketches themselves are peculiar, but also very powerful and well matched to the text. Also, there are a few pages that are completely black with white text, and these represent the inner thoughts of Clem while he’s lying in bed in the dark, or dreaming. The book itself is an interesting format too; it’s long and narrow which is surprisingly easy to hold and read. I really struggle to find anything to criticize about The Unravelling, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know others will too.
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