“A family is good cover”  
The Unknown Mrs Rosen
A novel by Andrew Sanger 

 
         

 

 


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THE UNKNOWN MRS ROSEN is a tale of secrecy, and of family, love and duty. It's also about identity and growing old.

Who should care for the elderly?

Who is responsible for us as we become incapable - the whole society, the local community, our family, or no one at all? Marjorie’s three children, Philip, Nicola and Max, argue among themselves how to get decent, affordable care for their elderly mother, and cannot agree on the way forward. This issue troubles Marjorie Rosen herself. She quizzes them for their views on the matter, but in the end comes up with her own ideas for a new approach to social care.

‘Care’ was my working title for the book. The word has many meanings. Always on her guard, Marjorie takes extreme care with everything she does and says; she cares intensely about certain political principles; and in the sense of love, a word she hardly ever utters, cares deeply for her husband Harry. Burdened with care by her three difficult children, in her final years she must depend upon them to arrange her care, so-called, provided by care agencies and social services.

I decided against Care as a title because the essence of the story is the contrast between Marjorie's identity in old age and her identity in younger years.

What is meant by a person’s ‘identity’?

Identity is what singles you out from others. What do identity papers say about you? Your name, age, sex and nationality? Your occupation? But what is truly your identity - how you see yourself, or how others see you? What is known about you, or what is not known?

At the start of her Cold War career, Marjorie is advised by MI6 to get herself a husband and present herself to the world as a normal housewife and devoted mother. So equipped, she conceals her source and herself. She agrees with her contact Erika that a family is good cover. Yet Marjorie truly loves her family. So what is the real Marjorie - what she actually does in her life, or what people think she does?

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The inspiration for Mrs Rosen

In a strange coda to the generation gap of my youth, I now feel great admiration for the wartime generation in Britain. Not merely do their astonishing accomplishments during and after the war deserve respect, but also their stoicism, humour and devotion to duty. Not everyone was like that, of course - but most, I suspect.

Yet it is impossible to understand the world of another generation. First thoughts about writing this novel came after glimpsing a friend of my parents in a supermarket. Choosing something from a shelf at the other end of an aisle, she did not notice me. My parents’ friend is a Holocaust survivor, yet nothing about her suggested she was anything other than an ordinary elderly woman. To either side of her were other unremarkable old people, men and women. What about them? Ordinary, too? There was no way to know.

When my mother went into a steep, terrible decline from vigour and brilliance to frailty and dementia, she was moved into a care home. There I spent quiet hours sitting with her, and realised how little I knew about her experience of life, whether in the past or in the present. There had indeed always been things about my parents that I was unable to reach, that had never felt quite real or relevant to me. Now I saw how much each generation lives entirely in its own world, a world that cannot be known by others and passes away with them, like a woman who lives a secret life and reveals nothing even at the end.

AS

© Andrew Sanger

 
     
     
         

 

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