Tania Chandler seems to specialise in women dealing with trauma and her latest book, All That I Remember about Dean Cola, is no different. Her first two novels Please Don’t Leave Me Here and Dead in the Water, centred on Brigette. Brigette had drug abuse issues in her past and problems with her memory, she was possibly involved in a murder but was also married to a policeman. In the second book, Brigette moves away from the scene of that trauma only to have more trouble and the past follow them. While these were ostensibly crime novels they had a limited genre feel. Given this background, Chandler’s new book All That I Remember About Dean Cola, emerges as a more focused exploration of mental illness and resilience.
Sidney has just come out from what was not her first stint in an institution. She is on “mad pills and sad pills” to control what appears to be a mental illness, although the pills make her put on weight and her thoughts slow. Sidney lives in Melbourne with her firefighter husband Christos. They moved there to get away from some former trauma in her home town which involved a house fire which left her scarred. On returning home, Sidney finds a box of memorabilia that sends her down a rabbit hole of memory – a poem to someone called Dean Cola, a person she has seem to have put out of her mind. Finding her memory fuzzy, Sidney decides to go off her medication to allow her mind to go where it wants to go, a move that also makes her grip on reality slightly slippery. When Sidney is forced to return to her home town she finds her old diaries and the nature of her relationship with Dean, the extent of her trauma and its impact on her memories is slowly revealed.
Chandler gets into the mind of Sidney as she slips from one reality to another and tries to deal with differing versions of the past. Slowly, the extent of the tragedy of her life is revealed: the manipulation and the gaslighting. But the narrative also highlights her capacity to work through her understanding of that tragedy and not only pull herself out but to help her young neighbour who is dealing with her own issues.
All That I Remember About Dean Cola is tough, there is abuse and self-abuse both physical and mental, so some readers should take care. But it is also rewarding, demonstrating that most of us have a deep wellspring of resilience, if we can only find a way to draw on it, and that trauma can be faced and if not completely overcome then at least reconciled in a way that allows those who have suffered to move forward.