All The Books I Can Read

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Review: The Secret Life Of Shirley Sullivan by Lisa Ireland

on August 10, 2020

The Secret Life Of Shirley Sullivan
Lisa Ireland
Penguin Random House AUS
2020, 336p
Copy courtesy of the author

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

‘Elderly. Is that how the world sees me? A helpless little old lady? If only they knew. I allow myself a small smirk.’

When Shirley Sullivan signs her 83-year-old husband, Frank, out of the Sunset Lodge Nursing Home, she has no intention of bringing him back.

For fifty-seven years the couple has shared love, happiness and heartbreak. And while Frank may not know who his wife is these days, he knows he wants to go home. Back to the beach where they met in the early 1960s . . .

So Shirley enacts an elaborate plan to evade the authorities – and their furious daughter, Fiona – to give Frank the holiday he’d always dreamed of.

And, in doing so, perhaps Shirley can make amends for a lifelong guilty secret . . .

When Lisa Ireland began writing this book, The Australian Royal Commission into Aged Care had probably been announced, so aged care was already quite a talking point in the country. However since this book would’ve gone to print, the coronavirus has swept most of the globe and in many places, the elderly in aged care facilities were particularly vulnerable. Here in Melbourne at the moment, aged care is a disaster, responsible for many of the deaths we have experienced in recent times and things have been so bad that private aged care has had to be taken over by government health organisations, at least temporarily. I’ve no doubt there’ll be a lot that comes out of both the Royal Commission and the inquiry into the response to the virus and even though the aged care facility that Frank, Shirley’s husband resides in in this book is neither accused of neglect nor experiencing a pandemic, it’s still very easy to see why Shirley would want to ‘bust’ her husband out.

Frank has dementia – good days and bad, some where he recognises Shirley and some where he doesn’t. This is a death sentence but Shirley doesn’t want Frank to experience his final days in this Sydney aged care centre that their daughter chose. They spent their married lives in Geelong and she wants to take him home, take him back to the places that meant the most to him. She’s constructed a very elaborate plan that will hopefully enable them to get far away from Sydney before it’s even discovered they are missing and from there, she takes further steps to avoid being detected, such as switching cars and changing up the way that they are travelling. Fiona, their daughter, means well but she isn’t listening to Shirley about what is best for Frank, neither does she think that Shirley is capable of making such decisions. And so Shirley feels forced to do things this way. To basically kidnap her own husband and become a fugitive, avoid detection in order to make it some 12 hours south.

Shirley is a force. She’s 79 years old and her whole life has been uprooted in the last couple of years. I’ve done a journey similar to the one she undertakes quite a few times (although I’ve gone a different way) and it’s a tough trip, let alone for a sole driver who is also responsible for another person. Frank is relatively far into his diagnosis and he does require constant care and watching. But Shirley lets nothing stop her, she’s determined to ‘free Frank’ and take him home, so that he might be surrounded by the things that are familiar to him, rather than being locked up in a dementia ward of a relatively soulless aged care facility.

This book is part present day, part historical story where it goes back in time to fill in Frank and Shirley’s backstory – how they met and began dating, the early years of their marriage, the troubles they had having children as well as societal expectations, the wave of feminism and Shirley’s feelings about what she wants vs what is expected of her at the time. Frank and Shirley married in the 1960s – times were changing but slowly. When Shirley makes a friend, a single woman who has carved a career for herself, Frank is suspicious and distrustful of someone not married by choice. This book examines a lot of things, including a particular kind of crippling grief. Shirley is told to basically snap out of it, get back to caring for her husband, home and daughter, rather than dwelling on what has happened. It’s heartbreaking, reading a lot of her struggle and realising how many women had their grief and shock and pain brushed aside during this time. Shirley also has another inner battle, where she cannot confront who she really is and must hide it away for many reasons. It is because of this that she also feels like she might owe Frank as well, that now she must dedicate these waning years to his care, to make him as comfortable as possible surrounded by what is familiar. It’s such a beautiful sentiment and even though it won’t be easy (Frank swings between calm and complicit to often difficult and agitated when things are new or strange to him) and Shirley, although fit and healthy after a medical incident a little while ago, is still an older person where this will certainly be an effort for her.

I’ve been blessed in that I’ve never really had a close family member fall victim to Alzheimers. I’ve had more distant family members have the disease but they were not ones that I spent a lot of time with. However, I feel that Lisa Ireland has done an amazing job with the character of not just Frank here but also Shirley as well. There are some truly beautiful scenes in this book where Frank, unaware of whom he is speaking to, waxes lyrical on his wife and their younger years and how he felt/feels about her. He believes himself to be a much younger man, still in his prime and his thoughts and feelings come to him sometimes, quite powerfully. Other times he’s much different, forgetting things he was told not long prior and requires constant vigilant watching and the ravages of the disease are obvious. It’s obviously very upsetting for Shirley, seeing this happen to him but her plan motivates her and it’s a powerful thing, for someone to have such a determination to accomplish something, giving her focus. Without this, her life in Sydney is not particularly fulfilling – having spent pretty much her whole life in Geelong, it was a huge upheaval to have to move and neither she nor Frank appear to be thriving.

There’s so much available for discussion here, the role that aged care plays and how it might be improved upon is just the beginning. Dementia patients and how they are treated is like a subset of that as well, because keeping them safe in aged care often means keeping them behind locked doors with little to stimulate them mentally or physically and although the staff may be passionate they are often overworked and underpaid with too much to do and not enough time to do it. But there’s also so much about Shirley’s early life as well, that brings up discussions on the role of friendships and how important they are, feelings about children, family, expectations vs societal pressure and how someone can love in different ways and be torn in many directions.

I think this book is brilliant – funny and heartwarming to balance each time it’s also devastatingly sad and thought provoking about women’s issues. Shirley is a beautiful, strong, complex character (my grandmother is also a Shirley, can confirm, they are very headstrong!) and Frank is – well, Frank will win your heart even though you might not love him for his 50s and 60s husband/wife views at some stages in the book. He’s realistic though, and I adored how much I felt connected to the setting of this book as well. I don’t live in the area anymore but when I first moved to Victoria we lived close to Geelong and spent a lot of time there. Everything was familiar to me, I know where the suburb Frank and Shirley bought their house is, where they ate their take away on Eastern Beach shorefront, the streets mentioned, where Frank worked. I felt like I could imagine their lives, even though they were taking place years before I came to the area.

This is one of my favourite books of 2020.

9/10

Book #155 of 2020

The Secret Life Of Shirley Sullivan is book #53 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

 


9 responses to “Review: The Secret Life Of Shirley Sullivan by Lisa Ireland

  1. Mic says:

    fabulous review. and yes, what an amazing book.

  2. I really liked this one too! So much in it.

  3. Marg says:

    I need to read this one! I love the cover.

  4. Hi – this is a great review – I would definitely like to read The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan. I want to see how they do on their trip. It’s heartbreaking dealing with dementia. It sounds like Shirley will find a way to get some things back for them. 🙂

  5. Lauren K says:

    This sounds great, I want to read it now!

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