Review: Crazy Age

Still crazy after all these years? Absolutely!

By Sipora Levy, October 7, 2010

By Jane Miller
Virago, £14.99

Jane Miller's delightful book takes its title from a poem by Robert Burns and offers a fascinating journey around old age and death. Part autobiography, and part comment on other published work, it focuses on people, books and events that have shaped her life.

Born in 1932, Miller is an English professor and author of several academic books, but here she appears to be writing for herself as well as for her readers. It is this quality of intimate reflection that makes her book so enjoyable.

In one of the most moving chapters, Dear Mary, Miller recalls the 50-year friendship she enjoyed with her closest friend, who suffered from Alzheimer's Disease. When visiting her, Miller searched tenderly for glimpses of the woman she once knew, realising that: "If we still use the same words, they've lost their old meanings".

In Not Wanting Anything, Miller considers, in a dispassionate, unsentimental way, the erosion of her own sexual desire, as well the loss of interest in new clothes or other material objects.

In Reading into Old Age, she examines how old people have been depicted in literature, citing Saul Bellow as a writer unflinching in confronting ageing and dying. Bellow's own explanation was that he had "reckoned with death for so long that I look at the world with the eyes of someone who's died". Simone de Beauvoir thought that growing old was easier for women than for men because they have less to lose in terms of status, and Carolyn Heilbrun believed that: "It is perhaps only in old age, certainly past 50, that women can stop being female impersonators".

Miller addresses pain and illness directly in The Hospital Years, but her tone is light and compassionate and here too imbued with humour. She quotes an old friend who, challenged by a severely painful terminal illness, says: "Where is Dr Shipman now?"

Addressing the gulf between herself and her grandchildren in Late, she realises that they: "will have come into the world too late to believe in my youth, to know quite what we have in common and what we don't, and for me it will just be late".

Miller's honesty and sensitivity, coupled with her formidable literary skills make Crazy Age a joyous, life enhancing read.

Sipora Levy is a writer and counsellor

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011