Only Yesterday

Gloag, Julian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Feb-06-2007
  • Last revised: Feb-02-2007


When Rupert Darley, a twice married writer and teacher, shows up unannounced at his elderly parents’ home in rural Southeast England for a weekend, having just left his second wife, he has little reason to suspect that it will be the eventful weekend that it is. In only 170 pages, he is joined by his medical student daughter, Miranda (also called Milly), whose visit to her grandparents is expected by them but not by Rupert; he must come to grips with the harsh realities of aging, most especially that of his suddenly quite old and frail parents, whom he calls by their given names, Oliver and May; he and his daughter discuss for the first and most honest time their lives and those of their family; and they all must deal with the crisis of sudden unannounced illness.

Oliver is a well known architect who is stodgy and well aware of his eccentricities, tolerated but not allowed free range by May, his arthritic wife who is probably stronger in spirit than Oliver. The four of them discuss - jointly and in various permutations of groupings - a costly stair lift for May, Rupert's marriages and current (extended) mid-life crisis, Oliver's quixotic project to build a huge pyramid city complex, the vicissitudes of aging and approaching death (which is the elephant in the parlor in this book), health, illness and societal change.

Of interest to literature and medicine readers, Milly has frank conversations regarding end of life choices, to Rupert's initial dismay, with both grandparents individually and accompanies Oliver to the hospital in an ambulance when he has a heart attack at the end of the book.


The author of well received novels such as Our Mother's House and Blood for Blood, Julian Gloag is a meticulous writer of subtlety and economy. In such a short novel, it is astonishing, upon re-perusal for this review, to witness the multitude of well interwoven themes such as an aging marriage of over 50 years, the role of personality and health in such a marriage and the familial inter-relationships that affect the various players in one weekend. A blurb on the back cover by Wilfrid Sheed, another under-appreciated writer of keen social and literary observations, describes Gloag's skill in depicting his characters well: "A writer who never raises his voice. He tells you all the bad, crazy news in the grave tones of a family lawyer; until you are ready to scream. And this is precisely the effect he aims at."

Gloag persistently but softly infiltrates the book with an undercurrent of death and decay. The former is ubiquitous: we read about his childhood bedroom bookcase made from coffin board on page 20, a black oak coffin chest in the parlor on page 24, and then hear Oliver say, on page 109, "The only nails I expect to have hammered in are on my coffin - and I shall hardly be required to do that myself," only one of many proleptic remarks. A neighbor's flowers (gladioli and tiger lilies) are described as "funereal" (pages 54 and 164); Milly hears Oliver describe his pyramid as his memorial and asks, "You mean a kind of, like, mausoleum?" (page 77) The decay is primarily used to describe the house but of course, if this is not the House of Usher, it is the House of Oliver and May Darley and the analogy of decrepit structures, be they the house the bodies are in to the house that is one's body, is not lost on the reader.


Henry Holt

Place Published

New York



Page Count