“This is the great private problem of man; death as the loss of self. But what is the self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus what terrifies us about death is not the loss of the future but the loss of the past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life.” – Milan Kundera
Louise Dean’s Becoming Strangers is an insightful novel about long marriages and deep loss. Dorothy and George are an elderly English couple enjoying their first vacation abroad in the Carribean. Jan and Annemieke are a middle-aged Belgian couple taking their final vacation abroad at the same resort. Both couples, on last-chance getaways, are growing apart for different reasons.
Dorothy has Alzheimers. “Her mind was closing down. Every time she got to that place in her mind, which took her a long time to get to, there was a sign before it, ‘closed.’” George watches her hide bags of potato chips under the seat cushions, but refuses to call her disease what it is, though her bouts of temporary confusion inspire him to start writing his memoirs. When she wanders off the resort, instigating a community-wide search, George is forced to acknowledge his wife’s condition to himself and his fellow vacationers.
Jan is dying of cancer, diagnosed 6 years ago, when he was given 6 months to live. Annemieke long ago said good-bye emotionally and has pursued a series of affairs, including—within her first 24 hours at the resort—a sexual encounter with a “born again” Irish-South African. (“What kind of Christianity is it that you practice?” Jan resignedly asks his wife’s new lover, who understands grace and sin, but in a more grace-to-sin than grace-to-turn-from-sin kind of way!) “This was how they had always been; his illness had simply developed the difference between them as light develops photographic film,” Jan realizes.
Jan and George, over numerous bottles of scotch at the pool bar, instinctively perceive each other’s losses and develop an unlikely friendship. Jan admits to the older man his responsibility for the failure of his marriage: “I never really took the time to understand Annemieke or to find a way of getting along with her; I think I saw it as a retirement project.”
Becoming Strangers features fresh prose and strong characterization, and the ending is as complicated as the relationships depicted. This is a title to add to the “intriguing first novel” list.