Book Reviews

Book Review: We Spread by Iain Reid – Getting Old is not for the Feint of Heart

note: I received this as an advanced reader copy. This is my unbiased review.

My grandmother lived to the ripe old age of 95. The last two years of her life, however, were spent in a care home. I’m not sure there were any other options for her, but it’s still hard to watch someone you love have their life reduced to a few things in a room while they basically wait to die. My mother died at home and my father only spent his very last days in a care home.

In We Spread, we are introduced to Penny. She’s had a vibrant life as the common-law wife of a renowned artist (his name is never given). She moved into an apartment with him quite young and has lived there her whole life, even after he passed away. It’s familiar to her and she takes comfort in the familiarity of places and routines. However, there are some things that are slipping, and after an incident where she falls trying to change a lightbulb, she is moved to a care home.

Allegedly, it’s a place that her partner and she chose together. There are only three other residents there, as well as the owner and a jack-of-all-trades. At first, things seem to be going well. Penny even begins to paint again, after having given it up when she was overshadowed by her artist partner.

Penny starts feeling uneasy, though, after a few incidents. The residents are not allowed outside of the home. Time does not seem to pass in a linear fashion. Penny has no memory of visiting this place with her late partner…. until she does. The story becomes the question of whether there are real horrors here, or if they exist in the mind of an elderly woman whose mind is not as sharp as it once was.

How much of the creepiness of the Six Cedars facility is due to the actions of the owner versus how Penny’s mind is processing it is nearly impossible to tell. Certainly, something seems to be going on there. The question, though, is if Shelley, the owner of the home, is really as unbalanced as she sounds or if Penny’s mind is just perceiving her that way. Told from her point of view, the story is disjointed the way someone with faulty memory would be. I can’t tell you how many times I had to go over the details of my daughter’s suicide with my father because he kept forgetting. I see a lot of that in Penny’s behavior. At the same time, it feels like there’s more going on than what’s on the surface.

I’ve had two head injuries in my life, and at the ripe old age of 57, I can already feel some issues coming on. One of my biggest fears is losing my memories and conscious thought. Penny’s experience is one I can relate to, as well as fear. I think anyone who’s on the downside of middle age will read this with a degree of fear. Sometimes the horrors of life don’t have to be a fictional story. Sometimes real life is the horror story.

I found myself burning through We Spread in just a day. It was a good story that kept me turning the page, wondering whether or not Penny was imagining things. The answer isn’t really given. The ending is ambiguous but fits at the same time. I’m okay with endings like that, but some people might not be.

9 replies »

    • I just know with the head injuries I’ve had I’m more susceptible to these issues. As they start happening, it’s hard to know what’s “normal” for aging and what’s a sign of something more. He really did a great job with how he characterized what was happening to the elderly lady.

      • I had a head injury too when I was young. I was skiing in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and had an accident hitting my head, getting concussion and amnesia, and getting a shoulder displacement and some damaged glands. So I need to worry a bit too.

      • Yup. I get so scared when I have those moments where I know a word I’m looking for but my brain has trouble coming up with it. My motto: adventure before dementia!

  1. This describes of my greatest fears. How do I know what I know? And what if the gears stop working? Everyone slips once in a while. What if they slip so bad I stop being able to function? How will I know that’s happened?