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Exit Lines, by Joan Barfoot

The rage of the aged: a haunting, disturbing tale of growing old disgracefully

For those of us in middle age, with ageing parents, the Canadian author Joan Barfoot's latest novel picks at a raw nerve. The Idyll Inn, a spanking new sheltered housing scheme with a river in a mid-sized Canadian city, is anything but what its name implies. A handful of elderly residents, all made vulnerable by age and illness, have fetched up here to live out their last days in peace and comfort.

Nothing in Barfoot's fictional world is as it seems. Sylvia, George, Greta and Ruth may be ailing, but they are raging against the dying of the light. They form an alliance, downing early-evening glasses of chardonnay to the consternation of the administrator. They eschew crafts classes, handle the students "assigned" to interview them for school projects with wry comments, and refuse to be patronised.

The younger generation's anguish over their parents' care is genuine. But it's hard not to wince with recognition over that dilemma, told from the ageing parents' perspective, of the offspring who consider them a problem. George, a former shoe-shop owner now bound to a wheelchair by a stroke, can read between the lines when his daughter Clare buys his shaving cream and shirts in bulk: she isn't planning on visiting very often. Patrician Sylvia, the widow of a local lawyer, wars openly with her daughter Nancy.

Greta, who raised three daughters after her husband died, is also George's former lover. Glimpses into their past are eloquent reminders that the gap between their passionate affair and current confinement seems frighteningly brief. The three are bound together by Ruth, another widow who divulges a terrible secret about her past and makes a shocking request of her friends.

This is powerful stuff. Barfoot movingly explores the awful territory not only of death but of the loss that inevitably precedes it. She reminds us sharply how easily the elderly are robbed of their dignity and autonomy. As Sylvia says: "I'm more than furious that almost every damn thing that matters in this world is out of my hands."

While the novel has plenty of bite, the writing falters at times. Too often, Barfoot relies on word definitions to elucidate emotions. Neither are Greta, a German immigrant who after many decades still struggles with awkward English syntax, and George, the stroke victim, fully fleshed characters. But this is a poignant read that unsettles, haunts and disturbs with the best literary sensibility.

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