Keeper, Andrea Gillies

Without memory, how is the self constructed? What is consciousness? “Is there something else that encapsulates the self, something extra, indefinable, that we call the soul?” In Keeper, Andrea Gillies worries over such questions, searching for a key to unlock the “truth” of the mind and the nature of the self, at the same time as she worries over her young family and her live-in in-laws: Nancy is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and her husband Morris is disabled. Out of economic necessity and a naive search for the healing balm of the Sublime, the Gillies family move to a large Victorian house in the remote north of Scotland, where two self-contained families can be accommodated. Quite quickly, however, it falls to Gillies to shoulder the responsibility of caring for them all.

Compiled “from diaries, scribbled notes, books about the mind and concentrated bouts of introspection”, Keeper is intelligently written and impossible to classify. Part memoir, part biography, it overflows with history, literature and chunks of information gathered from books or culled from the internet, threaded together in a free-associative narrative. A meditation on “the romantic view of the brain as an interior landscape”, for example, summons Coleridge’s “intellectual breeze”, Wordsworth’s “caverns … which sun could never penetrate”, Erasistratus’ “vital spirit”, Galen’s work on “the pneuma” and J. K. Rowling’s “pensieve”. Gillies discusses daily activities such as weeding, housework and caring for family, paying guests, domestic pets, horses and chickens in the same engagingly frank conversational tone as she recounts flashes of raw emotion, moments when anger and guilt burst through the veneer of capability….

Read the full review in The Times Literary Supplement, January 15 2010, No. 552, 26.