The Stranger She Knew – Rosalind Stopps

May, an elderly woman of indeterminate age, lived independently but she wakes up in a nursing home, unable to speak or to control her limbs. Her thoughts turn to a conspiracy. She’s not really this old woman, but a younger person in the guise of an old woman. She’s a good person, yet her irascible behavior with the aides (carers) makes her less popular. Still she receives good care in the home she calls (in her mind) “the gravy boat” for its unending smell of gravy. Eventually, she makes a friend or two and her daughter Jenny visits. Essentially, her brain/thoughts function but her communication is almost nonexistent and until she can write, further in her recovery, few people understand her efforts at speech. So this is a novel about May and how she came to be so suspicious of a certain kind of man, including Bill across the hall.

It is a novel taking place in 1977 and 2017. About May, Alaine and Jenny, a family that could not survive intact due to Alaine’s violent and unpredictable character. About May and Helen, her only friend, who shared their pregnancy time and a closeness that May never forgets. About May and Jackie, a friend in the nursing hime who is falling in love with Bill. What it means to be at various stages of illnesses late in life, mental and physical. What serious trauma can do to a person’s mind, particularly a person who is virtually locked in, unable to communicate in nuanced ways.

It is a novel of elderly May and adult Jenny and a parent’s regrets and the regeneration of a relationship. Of the ways our brains can be lovely in their memories or pernicious and about how we see others, judge ourselves or act on our deepest fears. This novel is not for those who want a lot of action in every book, because it takes place in only a few rooms, a few train rides and one brain. I liked the complexity of May, who is very, very well written in both her young and old womanhood. I like May, despite and in part because of her faults. I like her politics at the beginning of the feminist movement, her independence and understanding about why she stays with Alaine and in the end our understanding of what happened to her that makes her the complex, stronger, angry person she is today.

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