BOOK REVIEW / Bunny rabbits and broken hearts: Old Friends - Tracy Kidder: Granta, pounds 14.99

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IT SOMETIMES seems as if we prefer not to dwell on death unless it is sudden and violent. Wars, murders, assassinations, suicides, terrorist bombs, cult slaughter, blood feuds, anything gothic or ghoulish or sexualised - deaths like these form a vital part of a balanced literary diet. Perhaps, now that science has made life safer and death something we can almost (we think) postpone, we thrive on vicarious thrills from films and books. At any rate, the never-ending daily story of ordinary death - death as a fact of everyday life - is not one we hear about as often as we might.

Tracy Kidder's new book describes a year spent with the dying in a Massachusetts hospice. Even that makes it sound more melodramatic than it really is. Linda Manor, the hospital where the book is located, is an unremarkable nursing home for the old and lonely, only one of whom actually dies in the course of the book. So Old Friends is above all a study of old age. Kidder won a Pulitzer prize for The Soul of a New Machine, a dashing account of the race to build the first minicomputer, so this is a natural progression. Once you've examined the birth of a machine, what else is there to look at apart from the death of a human being?

Linda Manor is bathed in kitsch from the word go: the home was named after the daughter of the developer and is divided into three areas, each with a sickly title: Meadow View, Forest View and Sunrise. The gap between a nursing home and a nursery is tiny (old age being second childhood) and the aged residents of Linda Manor, grumbling in their diapers, are certainly treated like children by the staff. 'Mister Duncan,' they say. 'You mustn't do that.' The inmates go to a sit-down exercise class called Music and Motion, and play bingo in the activity room - the chips feature cartoon teddy bears, cats, ladybirds, bees and bunny rabbits.

In fact, the residents share nothing with children except a certain lack of physical competence. They crouch in the shadow of death and disease and are plagued by their own pasts. One woman tearfully recalls being the prettiest girl in Florence, Mass; now she has to be winched from her bed into a wheelchair. One man shudders every time he thinks of his last words to his wife - 'So, the Red Sox are losing again' - as she lay expiring behind his back, the TV tuned to the baseball. A woman with Alzheimer's scratches at the carpets, trying to pick the embroidered flowers; she no longer recognises her husband and wonders aloud who he might be. 'A strange man is following me,' she complains, while he weeps.

There are moments of mournful humour ('Well, like they say,' one old-timer quips when he gets into the lift, 'life has its ups and downs'). But for the most part the book trembles with last sorrows. There is no melodrama, and Kidder avoids anything like a theory; he does not even explore the religious thoughts (death is nothing at all) that might allow residents to incorporate their own decay into some larger plot. Instead he lets unwelcome facts make mere ideas seem glib and beside the point. The Gulf war is going on - the residents tie yellow ribbons on their wheelchairs and write Valentines to the troops; but the war seems remote from here, a sign that those damnfool youngsters are up to no good again.

In Linda Manor, life shrinks. 'Around here, what qualified as a news story usually had to do with someone's new ailment.' It is literally pathetic: one patient, losing weight, frets about why maintenance won't come and poke a fresh hole in his belt; another keeps ringing his local senator to complain about the consistency of his morning eggs (not runny enough). When someone does die, the nurse calls the kitchen - 'just so you won't send us a tray for him'. In this linoleum departure lounge, death means one less for breakfast. 'Linda Manor was a good place,' one visitor remarks, 'but there was too much sadness here.' Some residents die within days of arriving, one woman on her very first day. 'It was hard,' Kidder writes, 'to resist a Victorian explanation, that they died of a broken heart.'

Against this background Kidder narrates the story of a friendship between two room- mates, one a 72-year-old lawyer, the other a near-blind 91-year-old called Lou. Lou is gentle, practical, organised and affectionate: he sighs over his lost woodworking tools, listens to the hum of the lift, and entertains guests with stories about making fountain pens in the old days. Joe, on the other hand, is crotchety. Life has not been kind to him. 'The so-called labile tendency that sometimes accompanies strokes had lingered 18 years in Joe. It made him feel like weeping over inconsequential things, such as the sight of a young tree growing.'

A lawyer, he was brilliant at college, but wound up in the wrong job; one of his children died of leukaemia, the other was retarded. He has clenched himself against the world, and has never even been able to tell his wife he loves her. He is baffled by Lou's easy manner. Then, towards the end, Lou hears Joe talking heatedly on the phone.

'It sounded as if Joe was arguing with his wife. Soon he hung up, simply saying, 'All right, we'll see ya'.

'Lou didn't comment. He'd said what he had to say earlier. It was none of his business. Joe just had a different way. Lou wasn't going to say anything about what he'd overheard. They'd talk about other things.

'But then Joe said, 'Ahhh, dear.' He said that he wished he hadn't argued with his wife. Joe sounded sad and remorseful.

'Lou thought of Joe's lying over there feeling miserable. And for what? The solution was so simple. Lou was old enough to be Joe's father. Well, he'd play the part again.

' 'Joe. Next time, before you hang up, why don't you tell her you love her?'

'From the direction of Joe's bed, through the gauze of his cataract Lou saw the outline of Joe shift. He heard a brief series of sobs.

' 'I'm sorry, Joe,' Lou said. He was truly sorry. He shouldn't have said that. He should mind his own business.

'But Joe had recovered his voice 'No. No. I agree with you'.'

There is no way of knowing where Tracy Kidder was while this quiet exchange took place: ducked down low behind the oxygen machine, perhaps, or perched on the rail above the bed. Perhaps he slipped a microphone into Joe's catheter. Somehow or other, by some small miracle of tact and compassion, he persuaded the old friends of Linda Manor to let him in on their saddest moments. The result reads like a novel, and the steady growth of Joe's affection and respect for his frail room-mate is both moving and profound: it is never too late to come of age.