Book review: The Grass Hotel, Craig Sherborne

A poetic word painting of dementia and of dying, of love and yearning

Take the experience of standing in an art gallery looking at a wonderful painting. No one needs to tell you that this picture is great art. Regardless of its provenance it has captivated you from first sighting and you have returned to it a number of times to immerse yourself in it. It doesn’t matter what the artist saw when they painted it, it matters what you see and feel. The Grass Hotel is like that. It is a poetic word painting of dementia and of dying, of love and yearning, of self-awareness and of memories half-remembered.

To the extent that there is a plot in this book it is about a son who is very good with horses and perhaps not so good with anything or anybody else. There is a mother slowly dying and sinking deeper into dementia, who becomes an unwilling inhabitant of an old person’s home. There is care for a sick mother. There is enough plot to let you understand the two leading characters, mother and son, although the husband and father makes enough of an appearance for you to get the feel of what sort of person he might have been. And there are the two horses who live with the son at his ‘grass hotel’. You learn something about horses.

Read: Theatre review: Blithe Spirit

We read books for a whole host of reasons, or perhaps for no reason at all. But I suppose most readers of book reviews hope to get directed to books they might enjoy and, perhaps more importantly, avoid books that for them would be a waste of time and money. But regardless of subject matter, plot and setting, what makes good reading great is how the story is told. The Grass Hotel is told as a disconnected, slightly muddled train of thought. Perhaps this style is so captivating as it mirrors the way we think at least some of the time. Here is a fine example:

I wished I had Twinkle, not you. I said as much. I wished he were my son, not you. He would have kissed my shin when I banged into the coffee table. He would not have accused me of swearing. He would never have used the signing-book as you did. The signing-book was the me-book, for money only – expenses you signed so my feet could slouch up. It was not for writing down what you said was my new language: Shit. Fuck. Piss. Shit. Piss. 

. . .

We’re supposed to help each other. There’s only us two. Don’t then. Don’t help. Fuck. Shit.

No please. Don’t leave. Please stay.

This is not a cheerful book, as you follow someone’s final months with a disabling illness. There is no pretense that there is anything good about this, but it means the acts of kindness and consideration are doubly heart-warming. But this novel is not only about dementia and dying, it is – in a way hard to describe – also about horses and one man’s love for them and his understanding of what it is to be a horse, a horse cherished at ‘the Grass Hotel’. And so Craig Sherborne explores the age-old conundrum about people who love animals better than their fellow humans or seem to understand animals better than their relatives.

Some books you read once but, however much you enjoyed them, you will never read again. A few you put where you can find them again to read a second time; this is such a book.

The Grass Hotel by Craig Sherborne
Publisher: Text Publishing
ISBN  9781922458353
Paperback 208pp
RRP $37.00
Published 1 February 2022

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog