Novelist Gets Inside the Heads of a Family Facing Alzheimer’s

LONDON, ONTARIO – May 28, 2013

When Paul Cavanagh’s debut novel, After Helen, was released by HarperCollinsCanada in 2006, reviewers across the country praised his talent for crafting complex, powerful characters. In fact, his characters were so convincing, some readers assumed they must be real.

“I had fans taking it for granted that I’d lost my wife to cancer, just like the main character in the book,” he says. “I used to have to point her out in the audience at readings.”

It’s taken Cavanagh seven years to complete his second novel, Missing Steps, largely because of the importance he places on getting inside the heads of his characters. The story is about a family fractured by a father’s dementia. It’s told from the point of view of an estranged son called back home to see his dying mother one last time.

“As someone who’s worked as a clinician, I had a certain perspective on how families cope with dementia,” he says. “I wanted to go deeper.”

The result is a novel that gives a compelling but nuanced account of one family’s struggles. It’s realistic but cautiously optimistic at the same time.

“I had to get past the stock literary notion of Alzheimer’s disease as tragedy,” he says. “Sure, the disease can be horrifying, especially for a writer like me who spends much of his life inside his own head. What I learned is that even though it can’t be cured, there are hopeful ways of facing it.”

Cavanagh was able to gain important insights while working with Alzheimer Societies in Ontario to develop a program that helps people with dementia who might go missing. Caring for a father in his nineties with dementia also deepened his understanding.

Nonetheless, dementia isn’t really the main topic of his new book, he says. “It’s about families, the secrets they keep, and the importance of forgiveness.”

The story is set mainly in Ottawa, where Cavanagh attended high school.

A preview of Missing Steps is available at www.missingsteps.com. The book can be pre-ordered through the same website.