Hachette Australia 2018
In a culture like ours where youth in all its facets is worshipped, writing about our elders is often twee and nearly always patronising. One is frequently irritated by depictions in the media and especially in advertising, of older people as cranky, doddering, cute, inept, foolish or humorous.
It is therefore particularly pleasurable to find in Joanna Nell’s The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village a simultaneously sympathetic yet realistic portrayal of ageing and the older individual.
This is not to say that Jo Nell’s book is po-faced. It is not – it is frequently laugh aloud stuff, but not at the expense of the human beings she invites us to get to know. This is a story of friendship, love and resilience. It is an examination of family and modern life and of the effects of institutionalising and medicalising people.
We read this story very much through the eyes of Peggy, our main protagonist, widowed not too long before the story starts. She lives in the Jacaranda Retirement Village and is generally lonely and bored. She sees her well-meaning children as trying to manage her life and move her towards a nursing home, to age her and curb her pleasures and adventures. While we are led to understand that they are well motivated we do nevertheless side with Peggy on this – or perhaps that is my age speaking.
Peggy’s wry observations of her fellow residents certainly strike a chord – we all know these types in a variety of community contexts. The sudden insertion of her old school friend Angie Valentine into her life and our story both opens up Peggy’s options and allows the plot to progress into mystery, mishap and moments of mayhem.
Jo Nell is a GP by profession and her on the ground experience in listening to older patients shines through in this work. She writes at an easy pace and holds our attention completely.
She is an astute observer of human nature and she doles out just the right amount of humour to lighten what can otherwise be quite a dark set of subject matter – ageing, sickness, death, hidden histories. Peggy’s malapropisms are especially giggle worthy – inserted without comment into the flow of the writing.
The happiest thing for me is that we come away from this book knowing that respect for elders has been claimed at least in one small fictional retirement village. We can only hope that the serious message enshrined in this delightful work will find a place in our ageing Australian society and that the reverence for elders shown in some other traditional societies becomes the norm here.