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It’s a bit hard to not make this book sound like a depressing read. Amongst Alison May’s pages there exists every realm of loss imaginable. The loss of a child and the loss of a parent. Experiencing loss and creating loss. Loss of love, history, identity, hope, sanity, memory, dignity, reality and truth. Even the loss of a pet dog sneaks in there.
There’s something about loss that interests people. It’s what makes drivers take a look when passing an accident and consumers buy a tabloid which reports a human tragedy. It’s the sense of catharsis produced through morbid curiosity. This interest perhaps is a flaw in human nature. So it is very fitting that this story is based on flawed humanity and the difficult decisions that humans make. Not always the right ones.
Patrice is part Psychic Sally and part Blanche Dubois. Impeccably controlled and smartly turned out with a heartbreakingly tragic past swirling inside. All That Was Lost takes us along two parallel stories. In one, we witness celebrity psychic Patrice Leigh fighting to maintain her identity against the onset of what may be dementia. In another, the teenage Patience Bickersleigh comes of age in 1967. It’s clear that the two are the same person, and slowly we piece together each one’s story.
Amongst all of this are entwined the stories of Leo and Louise. Two individual parents experiencing grief and loss in very different ways. What is most affecting about the stories here is how Alison May so accurately conveys the ripples of effect that loss causes through a family and indeed a community. How loss can be both sanctioned by a community, feared by a community and sought out by a community.
In a previous professional life I booked theatre shows for venues, and in the industry certain celebrity psychics were always a dead cert to sell out (if you’ll excuse the pun). I remember one particular psychic lost a piece of jewellery in the venue and the general consensus amongst the staff was scathingly unsympathetic. Could they not locate it with their ‘gift’?
I booked these acts with some moral hesitation since making money out of other people’s loss doesn’t sit that well with me. Clearly the income of the venue won out, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this all the way through reading this book. Perhaps it influenced my sympathies.
In the end, the barriers that Patrice has built between her current identity and her teenage self allow the reader to completely sympathise with Patience without much liking Patrice in the present day. The narrative manages to link them and yet separate them entirely. My heart broke for Patience. I understood why she takes the path that she does. However this did not alter how unsympathetic I felt towards Patrice, and I found this contrast affecting if a little disturbing! The effect is that you are confronted quite graphically with your own judgemental inclinations.
So surely, this is loss at its most extreme. The decision of one person to completely erase their identity so as to stop experiencing the pain of the loss. As extreme, in a way, as Louise’s total submersion in her loss. Alison May clearly conveys the inclination of people put in extreme situations to react in extreme ways. It happens throughout the book, from the central protagonists to characters who lurk in the background.
However, for a book about loss, weirdly this is not devastating to read. It’s littered with sad experiences, yes, but there is something uplifting about Leo’s freedom at the close and, perversely, about Pat’s decision to take control of her own destiny. Perhaps it is this furtive sense of empowerment that makes this book such a page turner. Or perhaps it’s just morbid curiosity!