The Exit by Helen Fitzgerald - book review: This care home has a scary side

As funny and messy and heartbreaking and horrible as real life can be

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The Independent Culture

For quite a number of years now, the Australian author Helen FitzGerald has been creating impeccable and harrowing domestic noir novels.

Now that the zeitgeist has finally caught up with her, FitzGerald is pushing at the boundaries of the form and twisting it into new and brilliant shapes.

The Exit is set in suburban Glasgow where FitzGerald lives and the story is told from the point of view of two perfectly evoked female characters who span the generations.

First up is Catherine, an apparently vacuous 23-year-old partygoer who takes a job at a care home to get her mum off her back and to save for a dream escape to Costa Rica. The narrative is shared with Rose, an 82-year-old resident of the care home, an award-winning children’s author and illustrator struggling with dementia.

Rose’s mind keeps dipping back into the past to a traumatic experience when she was 10, and the unreliable nature of her account of events is used terrifically by the author to throw doubt into the reader’s mind at every turn.

Crime in care: ‘The Exit’ is a thriller for our times (Getty Images)

Rose suspects bad things are happening at the care home, really bad things, but no one takes her confused concerns seriously. Gradually Rose and Catherine strike up a friendship based on a shared hatred of authority, and Catherine begins to share Rose’s suspicions, while also having to deal with some major family trauma of her own.

With great skill, FitzGerald brings these two narrative threads together through a series of perfectly judged reveals and twists, and as the story reaches a terrifying climax the true depths to which certain characters have sunk will make you finish The Exit peeping between your fingers.

But though the plot is expertly crafted, the real heart of The Exit is in the depiction of its central characters. The tiny details of Catherine’s young life and her obsessions are rendered superbly, while the disappointments and controlling nature of her mother are as sharp as a scalpel. Rose’s everyday frustrations are palpable, not only at her own dementia but at the perceived diminishing of her life by others as she has become elderly and dependent.

FitzGerald’s world is so real you feel like you’re living in it already. There is a moral ambiguity to every situation – her good characters are never wholly good, her bad characters are never completely bad. The realism of her fictional universe and the empathy with which she depicts her cast of characters are key to the emotional engagement of the reader. As funny and messy and heartbreaking and horrible as real life can be, The Exit is a thriller for our times.

Faber & Faber £7.99