The Lewis Man, by Peter May

I read a good book the other day #1

The Lewis Man book jacket

This might well turn out to be the longest book recommendation I ever make, so make the most of it. I had to tell you about this book at length because it has something in common with my own mystery/romantic suspense series. They share a theme; not the main thrust of the story, but a sub-thread within the story.

Just think for a moment: Are you a Do Your Duty And Look After Your Elders sort of person, or an Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Put The Silly Old Fart’s in a Home And Forget About Them sort of person? In either case it behoves us to think what might be our own fate when we grow old and feeble and begin to suffer from dementia. This might happen to you!

In my books, Enoch is an elderly character who I tried to depict in a very natural sort of way complete with all his frailties, the usual ills of old age both physical and mental: things like constantly wanting the loo and being overwhelmed by a sense of grief and survivor’s guilt for a lost partner. But Enoch is at least still compos mentis, if a little slower of thought than he used to be – all of which is what makes him the “very different detective” of my blurbs.

In The Lewis Man Peter May has brilliantly depicted life for someone who is not only elderly and frail but also trapped in dementia. That’s not what the book is about, mind. The Lewis Man referred to in the title is a body found preserved in the acid peat of the isle of Lewis in the outer Hebrides; a bog-body such as has been found all over northern Europe. I don’t want to spoil the plot so I won’t say any more about it, but I wish I had read The Lewis Man before I began writing my first novel, for Peter May has shown me a technique that I might have found useful.*

By adopting the device of third-person narrative for the bulk of his novel, but first person for his dementia sufferer, May shows us this same person both from the outside, as seen by those around him – his exhausted wife and loving daughter – and also from inside. Looking out through his eyes and hearing the thoughts inside his head we see the world as he sees it. In this way it strikes home to us, if we have never thought of it for ourselves, that a person trapped in dementia who seems to everyone else to be wilfully obstructive, awkward and vacant, not listening to what is said to him, incapable of remembering what happened or what was said only a moment ago, does not see himself that way. Inside his own head he is speaking perfectly clearly, thinking sensible thoughts, recalling wonderful memories, yet struggling to make head or tail of what the scolding wife, exasperated at the sheer difficulty of coping, is demanding of him, perhaps with seemingly small explanation.

I don’t know how scientifically accurate is Peter May’s depiction of life as a dementia sufferer, but it certainly struck true to me. The victim hears all, sees people coming and going about him, apparently talking nonsense and asking inane questions. And all the while he is continuing to think. He answers their questions in his head, thoughts roll around and memories perhaps of the long ago seem perfectly clear to him; but none of it comes out of his mouth. The thoughts and memories so lucid to himself are locked inside and his carers perceive only gibberish and wilful obstructionism.

Peter May has depicted in all its dread the confusion that may come to any of us in time. But he also shows us that a sufferer from dementia might, within themselves, be perfectly happy – provided only that those around them are patient, kind and understanding.

Ever wondered what it might be like to grow old and suffer from dementia? Read The Lewis Man by Peter May. It is a cracking mystery very well told, with subject matter that certainly should make us all sit up and take notice. I will admit frankly that Peter May is a more skilled storyteller than me, but still you might also like to read some of my novels too, to see how he and I each treated that part of our subject matter. There is, too, another striking similarity that links both plots. I wonder if anyone else will spot it…

Meanwhile, sleep well, and please don’t have nightmares about growing old.

* Since this post was written the Just One Mistake trilogy has been substantially revised and I found Peter May’s mixed POV suited the stories perfectly, especially regarding the voice of the main female characters. So thank you Peter, for a valuable lesson in technique.

One Thought on “The Lewis Man, by Peter May

  1. Well you’ve done a good job there Charles, The Lewis Man is a book I must read, especially in my present situation.

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