Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 11, 2018

A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline, by Glenda Guest #BookReview

Well, A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline is a road trip with a difference!

Cassandra Aberline has been estranged from her family for almost half a century, but faced with that diagnosis that we all fear as we get older, she takes the train back to the west.  In her ‘platinum’ cabin she has all the luxuries that the iconic transcontinental Indian Pacific can offer, but it’s not a relaxing trip because she is tormented by memories of a Faustian pact, and she wants to sort it out while she still has time.  For the reader, burdened with insight that Cassie does not always quite share, there is also a sense of time running out, which tempers the rush to turn the pages to find out what those betrayals were.

It’s been eight years since Guest’s debut novel Siddon Rock and until I revisited my review of that novel, I had forgotten that Siddon Rock features a Faustian bargain too, and there’s also a tantalising similarity between Cassie’s surname and the quirky character of Henry Alberdine who ventures out into the bush and comes back with something he did not expect.  But A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline is a very different novel, contemplative and wise, and peopled with everyday characters rather than the oddballs who featured in Siddon Rock.

For those who’ve never done the trip from east to west, the chapter headings give some hint of the scale of the journey, as in ‘Adelaide to Cook, 6.40 PM to 10.30 AM’.  I remember writing to my uncle in England after I had ‘done the Nullarbor’ by bus in the 1980s.  (With only two weeks of school holidays, I couldn’t take the train because it would have taken ten days there and back, whereas the bus with a team of two drivers gets there in 48 hours, and we flew back in four).  I found it impossible to convey to someone on that small island just how vast that desert is.  It seems empty and barren too, though it’s not, as an alert passenger will see with the differences in plant life as the wheels roll on.  But there is an overmastering sense of riding into oblivion, and that – as the neurologist predicted – is what is happening to Cassie.

Guest has created Cassie as a dynamic, fiercely independent woman.  She took off from the WA wheat belt for Sydney as an adolescent with money she’d filched from her father, and through a combination of luck, talent and determination, had made a career for herself in theatre, specialising in Shakespeare and those confronting plays about old age by Beckett. She is well-known enough to be recognised by another traveller on the train, and he turns out to be a nice man who breaks through her reserve because she knows she is not going to see him again.  Unlike the reviewer in The Saturday Paper, I don’t see a future in any relationship, not when he takes the trouble to annotate his business card with a note about how they met because – like the reader – he knows that soon she won’t remember.

That’s the thing about Alzheimer’s.  You can’t make new memories, and eventually the old ones are lost to the fog.  But Cassie remembers enough to fill in the back story of her young life and the decisions she made.  Motherless from a young age and always conscious that perhaps she might have saved her mother’s life, she finds solace at a neighbour’s.  With twins Dion and Coe who are about her age she enjoys the lighter side of life, discovering music and eventually, desire.  It says something about the isolation of the life they lead that her sister Helen is her only rival and that turns out to be a decisive factor in the pact that she makes.

It’s quite extraordinary that Glenda Guest has been able to weave such a compelling novel out of what could have been deeply depressing material.  She’s a fine novelist, and I hope we don’t have to wait so long for the next book.

Author: Glenda Guest
Title: A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781925603262
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline



  1. I’m just back from the western edge of the Nularbor, which is all trees as it happens. I love crossing it though I never have by train (or bus). Interesting to take that trip on your own in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.I wonder how old the author is.

    • Yes, there are a couple of incidents in the novel where her love of solitude and a lapse in knowing where she is, makes the reader fear for her.
      As for how old the author is, I don’t know, but from the author photo she might be about the age where parents are beginning to become frail, if you know what I mean.

      • My personal knowledge of Alzheimer’s is of my grandfather when I was in my thirties but I think you might have to be in your fifties to start fearing it viscerally. (Mum’s ok, so I live in hope of avoiding it).

        • Well, from what I learned at the Wicking Institute at the University of Tasmania where I completed two courses, Understanding Dementia and Preventing Dementia, the word is that only in rare cases is there a genetic component to it, and that appears to be linked only with early onset dementia (which can strike people in their forties). There is good evidence from global population studies that lifestyle behaviours are preventative: i.e. do all the good things that stave off heart disease and diabetes: don’t smoke or drink to excess, maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly. It’s also good to keep the mind active e.g. learning languages, (yay!) reading (yay!) and writing (yay!). Risk factors include being socially isolated, having low levels of education *in childhood*, and suffering from depression.
          But when it comes to fearing it, lots of people do,,,

  2. Oh, I do like road trips – and I love to read about the Platinum cabin. We went for the Gold cabin on the Ghan, but if we ever did a trip like that again we might just stump up for the Platinum and have a real bed rather than the bunk! I still need to read Guest.

    • It does sound very nice, but like so many tourist options in Australia, it’s very expensive compared to travelling overseas.

      • It is, but I don’t see that as a reason for not seeing my own country. If we can afford to spend that money going overseas we can afford to spend it here, can’t we? Our Arnhem Land trip in July is very expensive – but I know I’m going to learn so much about my country, that it’s going to be worth every cent (barring some catastrophe that will spoilt it irrevocably!) I think I’ll be there while your ILW week is on, so I’m planning to read something appropriate, but what internet connection we’ll have, I don’t know.

        • *chuckle* I’ll content myself with looking at your travel pics on your blog…

          • You’ll be most welcome to… If I can get posts published. I’m half expecting to draft and then post when we get to Darwin.

  3. After just reading Three Things About Elsie, this sounds equally good, a combination of the ageing protagonist resolving the past and a road trip. Does the novel only take place throughout the trip, Cannon’s novel, started at chapter 4.48pm and finished at something like 11.12pm, with others which reflect the past in between these time checks. I liked that structure of present, past heading towards where they intersect. Great review!

    • Yes, apart from a very short epilogue when she’s on the plane back to Sydney, it all takes place on the train with flashbacks to the past. It’s very effective, plus it also allows Guest to write gorgeous poetic prose about the landscape they travel through.

  4. It is hard for us Europeans to imagine such distances.

    Too bad my TBR is already overflowing. (And it just got worse after yesterday’s book fair.)

  5. Although my dementia reading is almost at saturation point (I’m halfway through the open learning course now – have learnt so much), I’ll add this one to the TBR stack for later this year.

    Whenever I hear about trips across Australia I’m reminded of my time as an exchange student in Germany. My host family told me we were going on a long car trip and to get organised. I went to the loo, had a book at hand etc etc. After 1.5 hours in the car we stopped. I asked if it was a tea break – “No, we’re here!” Having driven from Melbourne to Perth the year before it was kind of funny!

    • We’re just so used to long distances here, Europe feels kind-of cramped, doesn’t it? I can’t get over the way you can slip from one country to the next in a morning, much less a day.

      • I do think our minds cope with distance whereas Europeans can understand time/ age in a way that we are less able to comprehend. For example, in Germany I visited some structures that were built BC. I couldn’t quite believe it…

        • True. They do old stuff very well in Europe!

        • Don’t forget our rock art is believed to be thousands of years older than the Lascaux Caves. We need to recognise that we do have a huge time line too that we need to get our heads around. Go outback you you get a sense of just how very old Australia itself and indigenous culture is. It may not be built environment but the art reflects human hands at work.

          • Yes, I’ve always had a good sense of our ancient landscape but certainly as a 16 year old, seeing buildings that were thousands of years old (compared to Melbourne’s hundreds) was hard to comprehend.

            • LOL I remember once taking an Australian government website to task for having a 200 year old bridge as its home page image, when our ancient rock art is infinitely old compared to anything else that’s here or in Europe.

  6. This could be a good one for me. Im just finishing Three Things about Elsie so probably need some space before I read another book where the central character has dementia

    • I know exactly what you mean. I picked this one up because I was reading Dasa Drndic’s Belladonna which begins with an old man’s terrible health and endless medical issues, and then this one turned out to feature dementia. Oh no, I thought, but it turned out ok because so much of it is flashbacks and the dementia is off-stage so to speak.

  7. Another compelling review Lisa. I will have to track this book down.

    • There’s a review of it in today’s Oz too, so I’m not the only one who likes it:)

  8. […] (ANZLitLovers) enjoyed this novel […]

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