Unsentimental journey

E Jane Dickson enjoys a pitiless portrait of old age; The Waiting Game by Bernice Rubens, Little, Brown, pounds 15.99,

If Bernice Rubens ever goes to the US, she could find herself picketed by Betty Friedan and her commandos of the Third Age. In an era when senior citizens are exhorted to cast off their Zimmer frames and take up bungy-jumping, Rubens's new novel presents a vision of old age that owes nothing to political correctness.

"The Hollyhocks" is a home for the aged on England's south coast. For the retired gentlefolk who live there, it is a kind of pre-purgatory, a place of small comfort where everyone is waiting to die. It is the house rule that this pencilled appointment with the reaper should under no circumstances be acknowledged. Residents who flout regulations are severely dealt with. When the mild-mannered Mrs Hughes becomes incontinent her peers round on her with the ferocity of "pack baboons": "She knew that they were complaining, not because of her unkempt appearance or her rancid smell. It was because she was a constant reminder to them all that wetting one's knickers and going to bed with one's shoes on was an essential rule of the waiting game they were all playing. She herself, wet and dishevelled, embodied the check before the final mate."

It is rare for a novelist to dwell on the reality of old age. The aged in fiction, and arguably in life, are generally relegated to comedy cameos or else to their characters in flashback. In dealing with the circumscribed here and now of her characters' lives, Rubens shows clear- eyed compassion. Unconstrained by authorial overview, The Hollyhocks' residents re-invent themselves as they see fit. The players' true natures are only gradually revealed and the effect of this slow denouement is all the more shocking.

Beneath the refined ritual, passions and perversion are stirring. The residents' secret lives include clandestine addictions, chat lines, cherry brandy, an upper-class blackmail business, sexual sadism and apocalyptic Nazi war crimes.

Rubens is grimly determined that her readers should see beyond the shawls and slippers. When little Miss Bellamy starts shrieking obscenities to the baby Jesus on the Christmas tree, her libidinous ravings are dismissed by matron as "a little turn"; "`Is that what they called it?' Miss Bellamy laughed. `Well it was a turn in its way but a very big turn. I turned into my true self.'"

Rubens has a sharp ear for the gentle soundings of the middle classes and a killer instinct for scenting hypocrisy. A strange nephew with great expectations turns up at his aunt's funeral with "a solemn face as separate as a handkerchief". Merciless in her judgement of individuals, Rubens shows strong sympathy for the general plight of her characters. The Hollyhocks' residents, however affluent, are the castaways of society, marooned on their comfortably appointed island and left to die.

A well-meaning Christmas gift of fancy writing paper becomes a poignant symbol of their condition. "There were those who were in awe of the sheer expense of the gift, and for the moment that awe procured any action. But there were those who bypassed the awe, unimpressed by the cost, and found the gift faintly offensive. For what purpose could it be used? To whom could they write `how are you' or `thank you for your visit' or `how kind of you to remember my birthday' or `many thanks for your invitation'. To whom could they write anything at all? The wounds of loneliness and isolation were painful enough without Mrs Feinberg's sprinkling of a pinch of salt."

On the whole, Rubens is a better storyteller than she is a stylist. The central image of the waiting game is laboured to a point where it becomes irritating, with the reader actively willing the players to die and be done with it. But it is the unmistakable odour of despair that hangs in the nostrils long after this honest and humane book is set aside.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence