Iain Reid is quickly establishing himself as a master of the weird and unsettling. His first book I’m Thinking of Ending Things, also made into a Netflix film, had a main character who seemed to have a tenuous grip on reality. His follow-up Foe (also being made into a movie), takes a very science fiction premise and again ups the ambiguity. His third book, We Spread, does something similar but this time through a more mainstream lens of dementia.
Penny’s partner was a famous artist. Penny also painted but had been clearly left in his shadow. When her partner passes away, Penny is left on her own in their apartment and finds herself lonely and struggling to cope. When she has a fall while changing a lightbulb she is moved to an exclusive old age care facility in the country that only has three other clients and two staff. At first Penny thrives in the new environment – she finds herself eating and sleeping better and even taking up painting again. But then things start to slip. She starts to suspect that there is a sinister purpose to her surroundings and that things are not as they seem, all as she finds herself losing time and losing memories.
The reader, seeing things from Penny’s perspective, is never clear whether something sinister is actually going on or whether Penny is suffering from some form of dementia. Reid creates tension and uncertainty from the smallest details – the length of Penny’s nails, whispered conversations, scratch marks on the staircase. This disorientation seems designed to mimic possible the effects of age and dementia, particularly when people suffering or potentially suffering from dementia are moved out of their familiar environments into a completely new place.
We Spread is a deliberately disorienting and disturbing book. Whatever the reality is, Reid succeeds in making readers think about those we consign to old age homes, particularly people with dementia, and to see things from their perspective.