Ventura Press, Australia, 2021
The Banksia House Breakout deals with themes of domestic and elder abuse, of respect for the elderly and respect for women. Written like a road movie, and with all the visuals the form evokes, it tells the story of a group of aged care residents, three of whom take matters in their own hands when they meet obstacles to fulfil their life’s desires.
Ruth and Keith have both been put into Banksia House against their will by domineering relatives with less than worthy motives. Ruth desperately wants to visit her life-long dying friend, Gladys, in Brisbane, but her son who now controls her finances and all aspects of her life, will not facilitate or allow it.
Keith, who has a terribly sad back story, has been deemed to be suffering from dementia and is estranged from his daughter, who has had him admitted to the facility where he feels horribly limited – he has tried on a number of occasions to get out and about. Beryl, while not there against her will, is determined to scatter her late husband’s ashes at Coff’s Harbour, their honeymoon spot.
Aided by the computer savvy and capable Jean, the two women plan their escape, deciding on ‘borrowing’ the car of the obnoxious staffer Glenn, who has been systematically abusing residents. Keith susses out what’s afoot and invites himself along for the ride.
At first, he seems to be nothing but trouble and lives up to his reputation of the selfish grumpy old bloke. It doesn’t take long, however, for freedom and opportunity to work its magic, both on Keith and on the two women.
The author writes with so much empathy and affection for his characters that we are immediately plugging for them as they travel north; they encounter and overcome many challenging experiences and meet new and interesting people – some they learn from and some they teach.
The enormous capabilities and resourcefulness of our trio act as a reminder that so often the ageing are stereotyped and underestimated, limited in their activities and assumed to be helpless. The long life experiences of our heroic three are put to good use as they work out ways of dodging capture and surviving until they achieve their ends. Enjoying the journey soon becomes important too.
James Roxburgh shows great skill and insight in creating these characters and weaving their separate and joint stories. The young support cast are equally well observed, mirroring the overarching themes of abuse and respect and of facing up to travails with fortitude, whilst sometimes leaning upon the support of other like-minded people.
Inevitably, we meet unpleasant and downright nasty types in this fictitious journey through life, just as we may in the real world. It is, however, the essential goodness, kindness and courage of so many that remain with us as the story reaches its very satisfying conclusion.
It should be stressed that while the story deals with dark matter, it is told with such gentleness and lightness of hand that we never despair over the state of humankind. Faced almost daily as we are with news of people behaving badly in a number of contexts, not the least of which is the aged care sector, it would be easy for us to descend into gloom. The author and his plucky group of adventurers allow us a softer landing place.
This is James Roxburgh’s first novel. I greatly look forward to the next.
Thank you to Ventura Press for my review copy, to DMCPR for facilitating my interview and to James for such a delightful conversation.