I spotted Lila Savage’s debut on Twitter quite some time ago and liked the look of it. Say Say Say explores the job of the caregiver, one which is becoming increasingly common as we call on the services of others to look after us in our old age and one which Savage spent more than a decade in herself. Her novel personalises this most difficult and delicate of roles, so often undervalued, through Ella who never expected to inhabit it.
Ella is a bright young woman, close to thirty and a grad school dropout. She’s settled into life with Alix with whom she’s very much in love, dabbling in a variety of artistic pursuits and earning her money from looking after those who need it. Usually, it’s a job which combines the domestic with a modicum of care: she makes cookies for Sharon – vastly over weight but eager to be enveloped in the smell of baking – cleans her bathroom and clears up after her incontinence. Ella’s new job is caring for Jill, a woman whose brain injury has left her incoherent, caught up in meaningless repetitive routines and seemingly unreachable. Jill lives with her husband Bryn, who has given up work to look after his beloved wife but is looking for a little respite although finds himself almost incapable of taking it. Ella is simply to sit with Jill, to ensure that she doesn’t harm herself. Through Ella’s head runs a multitude of concerns – about Jill, about Bryn and how he is coping, about the life they once had together and whether she’s fulfilling their needs – while fretting about what she should be doing with her life. Eventually, as all her jobs do, her time with Jill comes to an end and she must leave what has come almost to feel like family.
And so Ella had learnt to step in and out of grief, to sample it on demand
Rather like Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, I found this book getting under my skin but not being able to quite define why. Savage narrates her brief novella from Ella’s perspective which underlines the odd relationship between carer and client – intimate yet not – demanding a delicacy of navigation that Ella constantly re-evaluates. She’s the insider-outsider who must perform the most private of functions, witness the grief and distress of her clients, while safeguarding her own emotional wellbeing. Ella is constantly questioning herself, perpetually conscious of the effects of her actions on others. All this is explored with great humanity but also with wit: there’s an episode when Bryn takes Ella and Jill to the bike shop which is both comic and poignant as Ella attempts to shepherd a ranting Jill around the car park.
Still, she felt like a malevolent bully, like a sadistic prison guard, though she experienced no anger, or pleasure, in thwarting Jill’s will
Savage questions the gendered ‘pink-collar’ nature of caring, as Ella puts it, forced to re-think this idea as Bryn performs the most distasteful of tasks for Jill out of love, while Ella is simply paid to sit with her. Say Say Say is a thoughtful, humane and compassionate meditation on the toll caregiving exacts both on loved ones and professionals, delivered with acuity and style. I’m looking forward very much to seeing what Savage writes next.