In everyday life, Pippa Kelly is one of the UK’s foremost writers on dementia, having chronicled her own mother’s slow decline and eventual death from the condition in the national press.
Her frank account has touched many people and her blogs have won her a prestigious award for helping to raise awareness of dementia, which is still wrapped in ignorance, fear and misconceptions, at a time when it is becoming one of the UK’s biggest health problems.
Kelly, a former civil servant, has now produced a stunning debut novel that combines her own experiences with an emotive and mesmerising story of love, guilt, loss and betrayal within one family.
It tells the story of Max Rivers, a London-based lawyer who appears to have it all: a financially rewarding career, a beautiful girlfriend and an exclusive address.
But two things are weighing him down – his elderly mother who is in the grips of dementia and cannot see through her confused mental fog, and a long-buried secret that threatens to destroy his carefully-constructed world and bring up a past he is desperate to keep suppressed.
Punchy and quick, the action starts in the opening scenes, where the reader sees the crisis bubbling up in Max’s life, when his ailing mother injures herself when she falls.
Knowing he has to take care of her, Max becomes overwhelmed by emotions welling up from his past – namely the guilt he feels over the disappearance of his younger brother, Peter, when they were children.
The story then unfolds through two narratives – the first told through Max’s eyes as a solicitor trying to hold it all together, and the second through Max as a young boy.
This narrative of Max as a youngster begins with the arrival of baby Peter which coincides with his dad walking out on the family.
This emotional turmoil leads to a distinct jealousy emanating from Max towards Peter. He learns to write in invisible ink and, in a harrowing scene, sets his brother a trail of clues to follow after school one day, leading to his mysterious disappearance.
This results in a huge but ultimately fruitless police search, led by the avuncular DI Gould, with Peter’s ultimate loss hanging over the family forever.
As the novel progresses, the two halves of Max’s life – past and present – slowly come together.
In the present, we see Max’s girlfriend Eleanor struggle to keep her pregnancy secret. The two of them move in together, and Eleanor gives birth to their son, Ben, as Max has to face up to the realities and duties of being a father.
But this fresh renewing of life also has drastic consequences for Max’s buried past.
When his mum’s worsening dementia results in her coming to stay with them, she believes baby Ben to Peter and the two sides of Max’s life, which he had fought so hard to keep apart, finally collide.
Max’s buried emotions begin to surface and although he is determined to remain tight-lipped, his confused mother reveals all to Eleanor. Unable to cope with what this means, Max reacts by trying to remove the immediate problem and places his mother in a nursing home – an act that causes him immense guilt and grief.
Eventually, in a climactic scene set on Christmas day , Max finally decides to air his darkest secrets, leading to an unexpected and gripping conclusion.
Invisible Ink is a haunting and moving debut that excels at drawing attention to dementia in a thought-provoking way, while at the same time providing a fantastic emotional read.
In Max, Pippa has created a poster boy for the so-called ‘sandwich generation’, who have the double responsibilities of a young family to care for, and elderly parents. His attempts to brush his mother’s illness under the carpet run parallel to his wish to keep the past, and the deep pain of losing a brother, at arm’s length.
In both, he ultimately, and inevitably, fails to achieve his aims, but adult life is as much about accepting and dealing with loss as it is about enjoying the fruits of hard-earned success.
The author says she wrote the novel in part as a way of working through the raw feelings at the death of her own parents, and Invisible Ink certainly offers a deft exploration of the complex emotions hidden beneath the surface of our lives, drawing its readers into Max’s story and leading them, step by cautious step, towards a somber yet cathartic dénouement.
Invisible Ink by Pippa Kelly (Austin Macauley) is out now, priced £6.99 in paperback, £12.99 in hardback and £3.50 as an eBook. Visit pippakelly.co.uk