Book Review: When I Was Young And In My Prime

by Leviana Coccia

In 2006, Alayna Munce, a Canadian writer, editor and poet, published a book called When I Was Young and In My Prime. It’s about death, which is never easy to talk about or admit to thinking about. It takes all the feelings you have to watch someone you love slither away into what we might think is peaceful sleep, but that person knows that it is the last time they might blink their eyes or scratch their chin.

Have you ever read a book that makes you cherish swallowing one sip of water? When I Was Young and In My Prime will do that.

It’s about a granddaughter who is watching her grandparents get older, struggling to do the everyday tasks they were once able to: blowing their noses, remembering they love the fall, tending to a farm they sold 20-years prior.

It’s about this granddaughter’s growing fear of suffering and losing, specifically losing traditions her grandparents taught her growing up, about how to pickle cabbage and dry tomatoes, about the importance of a sealed mason jar and a burley plaid coat.

It’s also about Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that impacts nearly 44 million people worldwide, and the spouses who take care of their loved ones. It’s about a granddaughter’s fear of loneliness, despite being married for seven years, after watching her grandfather, Peter, decline further and further as Mary, her grandmother, loses more of her memory and daily functionality. The reader soon begins to identify Peter’s health with his ability to put on his socks.

The book is a mix of poetry and first-person narration, with many characters but mainly Peter and his granddaughter.

When I Was Young and In My Prime is set in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, and describes life in that city’s west end as it actually is, identifying lower class neighbourhoods in relation to how they make middle-class people feel too fancy, too forward. It addresses the rumours of Torontonians hearing coyotes in the infamous High Park, but those living in that part of the city rarely ever do. The adjectives used to describe a static, but slow-moving streetcar make the vehicle’s wheel screeches almost come to life. I can still hear them now (and not just because I live in Toronto’s west end, across the street from a track that carries constantly screeching wheels).

The main character, the granddaughter, is married to James. They have no children. James is in a band and often on tour in northern parts of Ontario. The granddaughter works as a bartender and caregiver, but in her heart, she is a writer.

Though hard to read at times, because of the sheer reality that we’ve all lost someone we love to old age, When I Was Young and In My Prime is a book everyone, not only those of us from Toronto, should open and indulge in. It’s 250 pages of pure realness, bringing out our own fears of having to auction off personal, sentimental items after someone has passed away or moved into an assisted-living centre. When I Was Young and In My Prime is something we will all go through, not only as we watch others slowly decline, but as we grow older too.

Though heartbreaking, I do not think Munce’s book is meant to make you sad. I strongly believe its purpose is to highlight the notion we always tend to forget: Life, like death, is all too real. Why aren’t we living it?

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