WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON, £12.99. ORDER FOR £11.69 (FREE P&P) ON 0870 079 8897
Exit Lines, by Joan Barfoot
The rage of the aged: a haunting, disturbing tale of growing old disgracefully
Wednesday 17 September 2008
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.
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 2 Ben Affleck asked TV chiefs to hide slave-owning ancestry, new hacked Sony emails published by Wikileaks claim
- 3 Driving while dehydrated can be just as dangerous as drink driving, study suggests
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 One Direction: Louis Tomlinson launching his own record label, has already 'signed two acts'
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
One Direction: Louis Tomlinson launching his own record label, has already 'signed two acts'
Tidal CEO leaves Jay Z's music streaming service only a month after it launched
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens: Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill admits he was suspicious of 'Star Trek guy' JJ Abrams
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate