Seven-year-old Foster loves playing games and making up stories with his dad, so when his dad first starts forgetting things, Foster thinks he’s just being silly. And when his dad uses his storytelling voice on the phone to work, it’s funny. But when his dad has to give up work and even can’t remember their dog, Foster starts to understand that he’s sick and getting worse.
Soon Foster finds himself shut out and shooed away from grown-up conversations. His mum and his auntie won’t listen to him, and he’s always getting in trouble when he only wants to help his dad and understand why he isn’t getting better.
Forgetting Foster (Allen & Unwin, 2016) is a sophisticated and sensitively drawn story of a family facing the loss of a person they love.
I had a little ‘squee!’ moment when I heard that Dianne Touchell had a new book out. I read her second novel, A Small Madness (Allen & Unwin, 2015) last year and found it deeply unnerving in the best kind of way. Mental health has been something of a hot topic in YA these past few years and, unsurprisingly, many of these narratives focus on characters who eventually get help and learn to cope. There’s a strong focus on resilience and hope. I enjoy these kinds of stories, but I loved that Touchell went the other way and explored what might happen if a girl got sick and the people she was supposed to be able to rely on turned a blind eye and refused to help. A Small Madness takes the reader to some really dark places that YA generally steers clear of and asks difficult questions about our responsibilities and moral obligations towards others. I haven’t read Touchell’s first book, Creepy and Maud (Freemantle Press, 2012), but with a title like that, it’s got to be good and is up there on my reading list.
I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that I’m not one for sentimental, heartwrenching reads, and a story about a young boy coming to terms with his father’s early-onset Alzheimers seemed like a surefire recipe for waterworks. (I watched the film adaptation of Still Alice on a flight home a while back. Uh, Gud. Much tears. So sad.) There’s a risk with these kinds of narratives that the author will be insensitive with their subject, milking it for its entertainment value.
There’s also a danger in approaching complex subject matter through the eyes of a naive protagonist. When it works, it really works (think Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Sofie Laguna’s 2015 Miles Franklin Award-winner, The Eye of the Sheep (Allen & Unwin, 2014). But it can also be cutesy and gimmicky and, to use a highly technical term, naff. For me, that’s John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (David Fickling Books, 2006).
So it’s fair to say that I had some reservations about the premise of Forgetting Foster. However, from having read A Small Madness, I figured Touchell wasn’t out to drown her reader in pathos, and nor was she going to deliver cutesy prose or an overly sappy or easy ending. And I was right. Forgetting Foster is a quiet, nuanced book. No shock twists. No overblown climax. Just a slowly increasing strain on Foster’s family, forcing it into a new shape.
He could no longer remember the first thing his father forgot. It came on slowly, his dad’s forgetting. Like a spider building its web in a doorway. For a while Foster could walk through it. He felt it cling to him each time he broke it down, each time he picked the broken bits of it from his face. But then it would reappear in the same place, so fine it was impossible to see unless his eyes were trained on its exact position. Eventually it was like a veil, this forgetting. He could no longer break it, only part it to gain a quick peek of his dad on the other side of his lost stories.
The characters are the heroes of the book. My favourite is Foster’s mum. In the early chapters, she has this wonderful wry sense of humour that’s such a great counterweight to Foster’s dad’s wild imagination. For example, his mum was in a car crash that’s left her disfigured, and his dad tells the story of why he loves how she looks now:
…’Then she heard a restless horse approaching and knew it was her prince. She stood before him, frightened and ashamed, but he saw in her crooked face a courage and strength that eclipsed and beauty he had ever seen. He knelt before her and offered her his fealty for the rest of her life.’
‘What’s fealty?’ Foster asked.
‘Room and board in exchange for laundry and cooking skills,’ his mum said.
Later, when his mum is struggling to hold the family together, working two jobs and trying to wrangle a support network, Foster struggles to understand why she’s cross and exhausted all the time and why she doesn’t seem to pay him much attention. But Touchell gives us glimpses into her world too. Even in a simple sentence, such as ‘”That’s enough, Foster,” Mum said, reflexively resting her hand on Dad’s to still their busyness.’ there’s a small, intimate connection that reminds the reader that this woman has so much on her plate, and on top of the day-to-day struggles she faces, she’s also losing her husband. It’s quietly heartbreaking because, in Foster’s mind, his mum is becoming the villain.
The title is two-pronged: a reference to Foster’s dad’s literal forgetting but also Foster’s sense that he’s being forgotten and pushed aside by his mum too. And while it’s a story about his dad’s illness, it’s equally about Foster learning to give up his child-like and self-centric worldview and to see that his parents are suffering as much as he is, which is a difficult thing for a young child to do.
Even though Foster very much owns the story, it’s as much about his parents and how each character individually as well as the family as a whole navigates his father’s illness as it is about Foster.
I notice that A & U haven’t gone with a cover that screams, ‘THIS IS A YA NOVEL’ for Forgetting Foster, and I can see why. Similar to Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief (2006) or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (2003), Forgetting Foster is one of those novels that sits well in the crossover niche. For adults who are snobby about reading YA, you could comfortably pop this one in general fiction, and they’d be none the wiser.
I read a lot of US fiction. And I make no apologies for that. I’ve always been fascinated by the US, and as a postgrad, I largely studied American fiction. BUT every time I read a good Aussie title it’s the most wonderful homecoming, and I’m all like: ‘WHY DID I EVER LEAVE?’ Our YA, in particular, is gold standard (inserts shameless plug for #LoveOzYA), and Forgetting Foster is no exception. Great storytelling aside, it’s comforting to read a story set in a familiar landscape (even if the story itself is grim) and not have to make dozens of tiny cultural adjustments in my head (much of my fascination with the US is how similar and yet so different it is to Australia). Touchell is hardly blasting the national anthem, but even tiny things, like the syntax in the dialogue and seeing Mum written as ‘Mum’ not ‘Mom’ reminds me that this is a story that could be happening next door, and OS titles, for all their enchantments can’t give me that.
Forgetting Foster has been one of my favourite YA reads of 2016 so far. Touchell doesn’t shy away from or attempt to mask the slow and terrible loss that Foster and his family experience, but her story is punctuated by small moments of humour, joy and tenderness that make for bittersweet reading.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of Forgetting Foster in exchange for an honest review.
Are you interested in writing YA? I’ve teamed up with Kill Your Darlings to produce ‘Introduction to Writing Young Adult Fiction’, an online writing workshop designed to equip aspiring YA writers with the skills and support to hone their craft and get to work.
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