Book review: The Gingerbread House

Tackling a taboo subject in the shape of caring for an elderly relative was the inspiration for her cathartic novel, Kate Beaufoy tells Sue Leonard.

TEN years ago Kate Beaufoy found herself caring for her elderly mother-in-law. 

In the throes of dementia, the elderly lady we’ll call Eleanor, lived at home in the countryside, with two carers who took it in turns doing three-week stints on duty, followed by three weeks off.

When one of the carers quit, Kate offered to step in, rather than see Eleanor pushed into a nursing home.

“I thought it would be dead easy”, she says, arriving at a city centre cafe having cycled from her home in The Liberties. 

“I brought work with me. I was researching a historical book at the time, and I took my computer and library books, and made sure that the internet worked.”

She hadn’t a car. Her husband, the actor Malcolm Douglas, joined her there for weekends, but for the rest of the time it was just Kate and Eleanor.

“I was enormously fond of Eleanor. She was beautiful, elegant, and witty with a great laugh, and she was very generous to our daughter, Clara, and to me.”

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Looking after her, though, proved a shock.

“You’re carrying a lot on your shoulders. It’s not just feeding the elderly person, bathing and medicating; its keeping them diverted. You’re being an entertainer making sure they don’t get bored, because, if they do, you are the one who will suffer consequences.

“You’re working to keep them happy 24/7, and doing that without respite for three weeks is physically impossible. I easily lost half a stone.”

Kate has used this experience to pen her latest novel. In The Gingerbread House, Tess, a copywriter, is looking after her aged mother-in-law, isolated, just as Kate was. Struggling to cope, she longs for wine o’clock, and only survives thanks to weekend visits from her husband. Her teenage daughter, Katia, watches helplessly from the sidelines.

“A lot of energy goes into keeping calm and not allowing oneself to be provoked, because rows are a waste of energy. So I kept sanguine and calm, and held all this tension inside myself. I kept trying to suggest things, trying to outguess, working ahead, anticipating a level of aggression or a sulk.”

There were times she had to take the upper hand.

“Eleanor developed a urinary tract infection, and this caused her to wet the bed in the middle of the night. She wanted to go back to bed, but needed a bath, and I had to say, ‘you are doing as I say now. You have to’.”

There were loving times. Times when the two women worked as a team — including an incident where they collaborate in an effort to get a urine sample, but the older woman could occasionally be cutting.

“In the novel’s climax, Tess can’t take it anymore. Eleanor turns round and says, ‘your mother would be ashamed of you,’ and that happened to me. In my case it was on a holiday, a year before. Eleanor turned on me and her eyes went cold. It was the most injuring thing of all.”

The reason Kate was so unprepared for the caring role, is that the subject back then, was taboo. Nobody was talking about it, and not much has changed. Women, she feels, are put on a guilt trip — made to believe that they should gladly care for a relative — that it’s their role. And this burden comes at a time when there tend to be a lot of other factors making their lives difficult.

“There was an awful lot going on in my life — the menopause, and the empty nest; Clara had won a scholarship and was studying at a university in Tokyo. And that came at the end of a tough time. I’d been forced out of our Dublin house to a caravan in Mayo because of the noise of building work, and my father had died. For other women it might be depression or cancer — all these things tend to happen to women around the age of 50.”

Surviving the three weeks, somehow, Kate went home and wrote the whole experience down.

“I wrote solidly for five weeks. I had to write it. Other people might have gone to talking therapy. I don’t want to over-dramatise this,” she says. “So many people have gone through this experience, and worse, but for me, I had to write it out.”

It was around this time, that Kate got a contract to write three romantic novels as Kate Thompson, for Harper Collins. So she put the personal story in a drawer, but occasionally thought about what to do with it. And gradually, she developed it as a novel which became The Gingerbread House, telling the story from the point of view of the teenager. It was at this stage that Clara read the book.

“I was worried when I gave it to her, thinking she might think less of me. She read it, avidly, in one sitting, and said, ‘It’s just beautiful Mum’.”

And she’s right! It is beautiful despite the dark subject matter. And, with elderly care in Ireland something of a political hot potato, it’s also both timely and important. While showing the torment suffered by Tess, the book is full of tenderness too. As for the twist at the end which makes sense of the whole, it is nothing less than heartbreaking.

“The ending was the most difficult thing to write. I couldn’t speak I was so emotional.”

Since then, Kate’s life has suffered many ups and downs. There’s been the warm reception for her two historical books as Kate Beaufoy, Liberty Silk, and Another Heartbeat in the House — the latter being nominated for an Irish Book Award.

However, before that, she endured a year of aggressive treatment for breast-cancer; an experience that has convinced her that she never wants to be as dependent on others as Eleanor was.

“It’s not just that I don’t want Clara to go through it; it’s also for my sake. It’s not nice to be a recipient of care. It’s horrible. That constant having to ask someone to do something for you. I lost my sense of humour. I was a burden to myself.”

Kate has long been cognisant about end-of-life issues. Her mother, a member of Exit International, took her own life, when her terminal illness became too much to bear. To celebrate her 60th birthday recently, Kate got her first ever tattoo. Written across her neck are the words, ‘Do not resuscitate.’

“It’s not legally binding,” she says, “but I do have a directive.” Right now, Kate oozes life. Still beautiful, with her trademark bewitching smile, she’s extraordinarily lithe and supple thanks to her almost daily class of Bikram Yoga.

“It’s where I get my strength from. I tap in, in times of stress.”

Another high was the wedding, last year, of Clara in Australia. While there, Kate heard from the Scottish publishing house, Black and White. They asked if she had any manuscripts she’d like to show them, as they were on the lookout for Irish authors.

“I told them I was on my holidays, and I had something, but wasn’t sure if it would be of interest, and when I returned and sent in The Gingerbread House, they wrote to say they were very keen to publish it.

“That was such a surprise. I’ve really enjoyed working with the team for their levels of care, interest and enthusiasm.”

Kate has now started work on a new historical novel.

“And I have an idea for yet another one. I’m full of excitement about both of them. There’s nothing better than starting something new.”

The Gingerbread House

Kate Beaufoy

Black and White Publishing, €9.19;

Kindle, €1.13

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