Book Review: The Lupo Stick

A novel with a protagonist who suffers from Alzheimers, written by an author with an early onset form of the disease


A veritable A-Z of emotions flow from Valerie Blumenthal’s fingertips. Her new novel, The Lupo Stick, is a portrait of sixtysomething Graziella, Sicilian émigrée to Oxfordshire, now spilling her life story (with all its long-held sorrows, secrets and bittersweet elation) to her much-loved daughter, Rosa.

At 13, Graziella’s simple yet secure childhood on Isola delle Pecore ended in an instant, when her chicken-vendor parents died in a freak accident: their cart somersaulted over a cliff when the mule pulling it stumbled on a stone.

Taken in by relatives — a viciously corrupt mayor and his wife — Graziella is deprived of love, education and the opportunity to thrive. Becoming a single mother to Rosa (father unknown), Graziella is also scorned by most of her community who, if not ignorant, are shamefully hypocritical.

Her plight could come straight from a Grimm’s fairytale, but there is no rescue from magic key or melted icicle. Only through her own supremely private grace and determination, will Graziella overcome anguish to achieve prosperity, revenge and the long-lost love that leads her to rural England, where she runs an animal sanctuary.

This is a morality drama of resilience and revelation. It’s also a meditation on identity — about who we become when we find ourselves, only to lose that self again: at the heart of The Lupo Stick is the fact that Graziella has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She can only remember and recount her own harrowing past in uncertain, possibly unreliable, fits and starts.

So Rosa faces a race against time to unlock the full story before it is lost to a tangle of plaque in the brain. Meanwhile, the precious mother/daughter relationship requires recalibrating amid Rosa’s irritation and anxiety, her mother’s unpredictable moods and memory lapses. Loss and lost control are twin terrors of dementia. Blumenthal’s gift is to demonstrate that, despite her fragmenting world, Graziella’s spark and spirit remain essentially intact.

Just as her narrative leaves its most searing disclosure to last, so it feels fitting to commend Blumenthal’s elegant epic before making it known that she herself has PCA, the same early-onset form of Alzheimer’s as her heroine — and the same as afflicted author Terry Pratchett.

You would never guess from her stylistic finesse and prose artistry that Blumenthal — a long-established novelist — struggles to butter bread and not the plate, or that letters dance before her as she types. This novel took six years to complete: a labour of love stymied by setbacks, it is all the more richly remarkable for that.

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer and reviewer

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