The Grass Hotel by Craig Sherborne review – immersive and poetic portrait of dementia | australia news

Craig Sherborne never strays too far from home. He prefers plumbing the murky depths of those closest to him, sifting their grit (and his own de el) for kernels of meaning, upturning stones to glean what unsightly realities lie beneath. The novelist–poet–journalist–playwright is perhaps best known for his critically regarded memoirs Hoi Polloi and Muck, darkly comic renderings of a turbulent childhood in New Zealand with two flawed, idiosyncratic parents: his glamour-puss mother, whom he introduces as “ Heels” (she liked shoes), and his gambling, racehorse-owning father, “Winks” (self-explanatory). “Heels” was particularly memorable: a butcher’s daughter obsessed with class, described in Muck as “a bundle of airs and prejudice, strut and flutter, lipstick and hairspray.”

She seems to have returned as an older woman in The Grass Hotel, Sherborne’s latest novel, the entirety of which comprises her internal monologue (written in the oft-avoided second-person) addressed to her adult son. We learn that her “wiring” from her is awry: she has dementia, and her mental faculties from her are deteriorating. She believes herself “refined”, entitled to a more rarefied air, and is prone to belittling her son de ella, an animal lover she describes as “born numb” and an “embarrassment”. He grows up to be a kind of broncobuster, taming unruly horses on a farm (his “grass hotel”), which he does around traveling across town to care for his equally unruly, waning mother and his ill father, Twinkle – who has “ bad shadows” of the body.

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It takes little sleuthing to recognize these characters as Sherborne’s parents, and even a variation of the author himself. As he has written elsewhere, his mother had Alzheimer’s before her death, and his father died of cancer. The Grass Hotel reads as a stylized story about dementia’s throes, familial strictures and the cycle of a child becoming the parent – ​​but beneath the surface lies a far more intriguing subtext of a son inhabiting his mother de el, parsing meaning from his parents’ final years. Hoi Polloi and Muck handled Sherborne’s childhood and adolescence, but he has yet to delve into his adulthood. Is this a novel, then, or the third memoir? Is it both?

It doesn’t matter, really. Autobiography recurs in Sherborne’s creative writing, such as in his Melbourne prize-winning novel The Amateur Science of Love and Off the Record, as well as in his poetry collection Necessary Evil. His specialty is “inside jobs”, as he once wrote in an essay for the Australian, a penchant for flouting the “intimate, sacred code” of protecting family secrets and instead prying them apart for the sake of art. He quotes the poem Epic by Patrick Kavanagh: “I have lived in important places, times / When great events were decided.” To Sherborne, great events are not the grandiose epics woven in tapestry, but the ordinary realities of the people close to us.

It is curious, though, how often Sherborne returns to the same source material in different mediums, revisiting moments as if something remains unsaid. In the poem Ash Saturday, Sherborne’s elegy to his father, he recounts how upon scattering his father’s ashes in the ocean, they clung to his skin in the water: “Some of him sticks to my swimming hands – / I shudder and dunk to wash him from me”. In his doctoral paper, he writes: “you left out how hard it had been to get the plug out of the plastic tube containing his ashes from him. You had to leave your mother sitting on the sand while you ran to her apartment for a screwdriver and hammer.” This scene re-emerges in The Grass Hotel, and it is one of its most morbidly funny and poignant. Perhaps in fiction Sherborne has found it feels most authentic.

This authenticity is helped by the novel’s heavily stylized form. Its sentences are discursive, lyrical, beat-poetic. As the mother’s dementia worsens, the prose becomes less coherent, a soup of dissociated meanings evoking the difficulties of the neurological syndrome and its opaque interiority. Take this passage, where the mother wants to tell her nurse to leave:

I knew the know-how for making signs. The sign for Get out was a pointed finger. I still know this but the know-how goes in blanks and blinks. Worse. Each week worse. Blank. Blink. Think. Blank. Goes.

This fragmented writing – with its echoes of the childlike half-speak of poet Ania Walwicz – is a heightening of Sherborne’s “exaggerated talking”, a monologue style found variously throughout his other books. Here it’s not always even paced – there are times the mother’s character feels transparent, revealing Sherborne at his desk – but mostly the novel’s poetic, image-rich, disjointed realm is immersive and memorable, with its lightning “in cardiac jags”, its spiderwebs “mid-air like skeleton flowers”, its broiling sun decanting wind as if “burning drinks of breath”.

The Grass Hotel leaves us with a persuasive articulation of familial power dynamics, their emotional turbulence, and the psychical cling – like ash in water – of our parents. “We slip into our children’s minds and they do n’t know if it’s actual or figment,” says the novel’s mother to her son de ella, the author to himself. “Carried in them onward and they slip into their children the same.”

The Grass Hotel by Craig Sherborne is out now through Text Publishing

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