First published in 2018.
Margaret Forster’s 1989 novel, Have the Men Had Enough?, is an incredibly astute familial saga with an ageing matriarch, Grandma, as its central focus. At the outset of the novel, Grandma is clearly beginning to lose her focus, believing that her father and brothers will be coming home shortly, and that she needs to cook their dinner.
Have the Men Had Enough? is told from two perspectives, those of Grandma’s daughter-in-law, Jenny McKay, and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Hannah. Of Grandma’s diagnosis, the family are told ‘the long-term memory remains after the short-term has gone. Grandma cannot remember what she had for dinner an hour ago but she can remember every detail of what she ate on the train journeys to the Highlands in the 1920s. And it makes her happy. It does not seem to worry her in the least that she cannot remember her husband’s first name or the colour of his eyes or what he liked and did not like. He remains in her memory as the subject of a few unflattering anecdotes and, if she had to sum him up, she is content to say he was “a man’s man”.’ Despite these two perspectives, and their sometimes conflicting views, Grandma is always the focus of the narrative; we learn about the other characters largely with regard to their actions toward, and feelings about, her.
It was fascinating, and often saddening, to see such a story unfold from the perspective of a family who have different beliefs as to what would be the best course of action for Grandma’s ongoing care. Her daughter Bridget, a nurse, lives next door, and is determined to keep caring for her at home for as long as she can manage. One of her sons, Stuart, keeps away, saying that he does not want the hassle of involvement. Her son Charlie, Jenny’s husband, funds Grandma’s flat and nursing expenses. Whilst they live nearby, and Jenny does a lot to help from time to time, both find the process exhausting. Jenny expresses her fears about caring for Grandma: ‘I want to act now, to protect us all. And yes, I am afraid, afraid of what it will do to us all if we keep Grandma in our midst to the bitter end.’ Granddaughter Hannah is incredibly observant, continually questioning what would be best for Grandma; at first, she asks, ‘Haven’t the women had enough too?’, before veering back and forth on the idea of Grandma being cared for in their family home, something which her brother Adrian wants dearly. Hannah is concerned throughout with Grandma’s happiness, and treats her with tenderness and understanding at all times.
Certainly poignant, Have the Men Had Enough? raises a wealth of important questions about ageing, and who will care for us when we reach a stage at which we are no longer able to care for ourselves. Each of the characters is forced, at points, to reflect upon their opinions of what would be best for themselves and for Grandma. This thought-provoking reflection makes the novel feel eminently human, and so well balanced; we recognise the discomfort of each of the characters in turn.
Others have written that Have the Men Had Enough? is a difficult book to read, both in terms of prose and content, one which takes time and concentration. Certainly, Forster’s writing is intelligent, but from the very beginning, I found it immersive. The story itself was a little draining at times, and one feels terribly for the McKays, in having to make such a difficult decision which will ultimately impact upon and affect them all. There is a wonderful variation to the novel, given the range of characters, opinions, and voices.
Whilst a devoted fan of Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier, and devouring one of her more recent efforts, The Unknown Bridesmaid, a few years ago, I am baffled as to why it has taken me so long to read more of her work. Forster is an author who has published a wealth of books which appeal to me, and I will certainly try my best to read more of them over the coming months. I shall conclude this review with a wonderful quote by Hilary Mantel, which sums up my thoughts on the novel: ‘It is close to life in a way we hardly expect a novel to be, and finally very moving.’