Bruce Nash – All the Words We Know

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2024
Cover design Design by Committee
Cover illustrations Shutterstock

We find ourselves distracted by the author’s scintillating language games from the fact that this is really a work of crime fiction.

Bruce Nash talks to Barbie about All the Words We Know

Main character Rose, who is confined to an aged care home, reminds us with her dementia-inspired word muddles what an expressive language English is and how capable of nuance it is.

Rose provides an unhurried account of her life and through a process of interpretation and translation it enables us to uncover the goings on of the ne’er do well Scare Manager. That we can be entirely held by the narrative of someone not quite able to give us the precise picture is a stroke of sheer writing brilliance.

Despite her limitations, Rose retains a keen intelligence and a capacity for observation and deduction. Her comments are wickedly funny, sometimes deliberately, sometimes ‘by accident’, the accident of the apparently uncontrived.

There is no doubt, however, that she is on to something rotten in the care home. Repetition of what she thinks she knows and what she has seen occurs in a spiral fashion, each time augmenting somewhat our understanding of what’s afoot. This is deliciously clever writing.

We learn a huge amount about Rose’s life through her fragmented monologues – her children and the difficulties they have coping with an institutionalised parent and the different ways they approach this, her marriages happy and unhappy and life and loves in an earlier time, her fellow residents and their fates, the home’s tedious and restrictive routines, the problems of the Nice Boy who Mops the Floors.

Her description of her granddaughters with their gen alpha phone habits and lingo indicates that she both understands a great deal and does not; her recounting is delivered with the same bemusement and puzzlement that we all probably feel when trying to fathom the behaviour and language of a younger generation. Nevertheless, she does learn from her observations and from what they tell her; enough in fact to solve a major crime.

We are ever conscious of the danger Rose has put herself in by speaking aloud of what she suspects and knows. There’s a sort of Panto fear for the reader and we want to call out ‘Look out behind you!’ Her feisty attitude is a triumph over the physical confinement and diminishment she has to endure.

Memory is a constantly ebbing creature in this work. Rose is reminded by her son and the repeated movement of the photographs on her dresser (pictures of the Dresser family) of the facts of her past.

She grapples to retrieve the happy memories and the not so happy and to express the reasons for her actions, to excuse herself from the wrongs she feels she has committed towards her children. She pulls memory from the fog and piece by piece reconstructs the jigsaw picture for us.

In the end, along with the resolution of the crime plot, there is the sense that love has triumphed. All of Rose’s loves and losses somehow come together in the denouement. As Rose says: ‘Nothing can stop the remembering and the forgetting and the understanding and the misunderstanding and the loving and the losing, until something does.’

This is a clever and compassionate work, cunningly constructed and gently observed but with a lusciously acid humour. It’s a work of startling originality and an absolute pleasure to read.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Bruce for speaking with me about language, love and nefarious deeds.