The Paradise Trees didn’t start life as a suspense novel for adults.
In the beginning it was a children’s book, about eight-year-old Jenny whose Grandpa had Alzheimer’s Disease. I wanted to write it to help my children over the loss of their own grandfather, but sadly, it didn’t work out like that.
My father-in-law was an amazing grandparent – he was patience personified, great at carving wooden boats, and had a never-ending supply of sweeties in the cupboard. Our older son called him ‘Opa Biber’; Opa being German for Grandpa, and Biber a kind of Swiss gingerbread which Opa particularly enjoyed.
But Opa Biber changed. Before our horrified eyes he became a moody and belligerent caricature of himself, someone who was no longer safe to be alone with a child. "Dementia," said the doctors. "It’s vascular. There are some pills, but..." We had to watch while Opa slid down the slippery slope, turning into an aggressive stranger who, in the end, didn’t know us.
Learning to cope
I’d seen this before, of course. My work as a physiotherapist meant I’d had to deal with dozens of families whose loved ones became demented, had strokes or other brain injuries which turned them into different people. I always knew it was difficult for these families, but I only felt just how difficult it was when it happened to Opa Biber.
Coping with dementia in the family is hard enough when you’re an adult, but for a young child it’s not only traumatic, it erases the happy grandparent memories. So I began to write Cat Summer, where a ghost from the past appeared with his cats and told Jenny why dementia sufferers suddenly started shouting and swearing, or swiped jigsaws off the table because they couldn’t fit a piece in. Both of which are incredibly shocking occurrences when you’re four years old and watching your Opa Biber.
It was a very difficult book to write and in the end I gave up. Even ghosts can’t explain the unexplainable – why do some people get dementia? There are medical reasons of course, but in the end it’s fate. However, I had grown attached to Jenny and her family, so years later I put them all (except the ghost) into a very similar situation, added a stalker, and called it The Paradise Trees.
The Paradise Trees
In this new version, which definitely isn’t for children, the demented grandfather had suffered a major stroke and no longer knew his family – or did he? This is the difficult part when someone in your family has a brain injury. You just don’t know. It’s impossible to view the world through this person’s eyes, so you have little idea what they are thinking or feeling and often they can’t tell you. And knowing that your loved one has a different personality now and isn’t going to change back into their former self is very, very hard to come to terms with.
After Opa Biber’s illness, I knew what my characters were going through. I could identify with Alicia, with her ambivalence towards her father; duty on the one hand, horror at what he had done on the other. Having watched my own children turn away from their Opa, I knew the confusion that would plague Jenny, and how powerless Alicia would feel to help her. And I could identify with Margaret, who didn’t want to put her brother into a home. Like many people she resorted to denial, because the reality was just too painful. We felt the pain when we took Opa to his home, but with a baby in the house we couldn’t take on an aggressive old man too. Denial wasn’t an option for us.
This time, the story almost wrote itself. He died a long time ago, Opa Biber. But his help in writing The Paradise Trees was still invaluable all those years later – and how he’d have chuckled about that.
The Paradise Trees by Linda Huber is published by Legend Press.