Matron rules her home on grounds of breeding - "class was what the Hollyhocks were all about" - but admits "a token Jew" to keep the board happy. Lady Celia Suckling uses her title as a guarantee for being the "Queen Pin" and runs a profitable blackmailing business on the sly. Jeremy Cross is a "professional survivor", keeping a list inside his wardrobe of all those he had managed to outlive, viewing the deaths of others as a personal triumph. Mrs Thackary has come to the Hollyhocks to forget a sado-masochistic marriage of "whips and smiles and stains", and Mrs Green hopes to find a new husband.
No one is quite what they seem and all are hiding a secret buried in the past. Not since "La Perlmutter" of Alan Isler's The Prince of West End Avenue acted Ophelia dressed in a Mickey Mouse tracksuit has old age been presented as so poignant in its feisty will to outstare death.
There is an unmistakable glee on Rubens' part when she describes the residents' bad behaviour (at one point, they sing Ten Green Bottles all the way back from a funeral), yet she pulls off that difficult feat of being at once taboo-breakingly funny and sentiently profound: after an astonishing scene when they momentarily forget themselves and take turns around the dinner table to say "fuck", she reminds us that "old people, unshackled from convention, were finally granted the freedom of filth ... that dire monosyllable was their own farewell to a life underlived".
The denouement - which involves the unravelling of the mysterious past of one of the residents - is a little disappointing in its predictability. We would have to be more than a little dense if we failed to guess why someone who bears a concentration-camp number tattooed on her arm might despise a woman who patently lies about her background and speaks perfect German .
But plot is almost incidental. This is a study of character, and Rubens is a mistress of the tiny mathematics of human relationships and how the social situation can tilt and change in an instant. What is alarming - or perhaps reassuring - is her suggestion that people don't change with age. What prevails here is an all-too-familiar primary-school mentality of random persecution. The book is steeped in unobtrusive compassion and unfolds with easy narrative fluidity. It will make you cast a cold and dreading eye over life, death and growing old disgracefully.Reuse content