This intense, first-person narrative begins as Caro, a 76-year-old woman, is delivered to a private nursing home by her even more elderly brother and his wife. Living with them after Caro had to give up her house following a heart attack has not worked out.
Formerly a residence, the home is owned by Harriet Hatfield, who runs it with the assistance of her daughter, Rose. The other inmates are a gaggle of old men, sedated into senescence, as though age alone were not enough; a disabled younger man named Jack, who can only communicate in bursts of lucidity; and Standish Flint, deaf and too weak to move, furious at being exiled from his farm and the wife whose long illness has drained their savings and who now lives in another home.
Caro is horrified at being dumped among these crocks, terrified of giving in and becoming a lump stationed in front of the television, and determined to resist Harriet’s tyranny. Standish is her ally in these endeavours, waging his own war against Harriet, often refusing to eat. Sarton’s strong, expressive prose keeps this story from becoming a typical nursing home horror story, as does our reliance on Caro’s testimony. She herself begins to doubt her own memory of the incidents she recounts, and her interpretation of Harriet’s motives.
Remembering my own mother’s endless, self-pitying complaints about the luxurious retirement home she referred to as The Prison, I tried to keep an open mind. Harriet is not necessarily a bad person, as even Caro allows, and may even have started out running the home with generous intentions. But this story is about what happens when helpless beings are completely in your power.
Sarton pulls the reader into Caro’s journey, her daily ups and downs: rejoicing in a bird in the garden or a visit from the minister, raving when Harriet refuses to call a doctor for Standish when he is in great pain. Without sentiment or self-pity, Caro never lets us forget that her journey is toward death, inevitable for all but coming sooner for some than others.
During my friend Kate’s long descent into Alzheimer’s, she stayed for a while in a home similar to this one: a house in Catonsville that had been converted into a nursing home for a handful of patients. Much nicer, of course, than Harriet’s. In my weekly visits, I never saw anything but cleanliness and kindness. In Sarton’s story, it is the isolation that enables Harriet and Rose to go as far as they do. Visits from relatives are rare, perhaps discouraged by Harriet, and official oversight non-existent. When Caro manages to get inspectors called in, she finds the small improvements barely worth the revenge that Harriet seems to exact. As with Kate, though, Caro’s real prison is her treacherous brain, letting her down at crucial moments, making her distrust herself.
Sarton handles this wavering confidence masterfully. Our narrator recognises that she may be unreliable. Because she can give us no guideposts to enable us to assess when she has gone astray, we feel all her uncertainty, all her terror. I mentioned in an earlier blog post that I don’t read horror stories. This is a different kind of horror story, more chilling than any gory slasher novel.