Joanna Nell – The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital

Hachette, Australia, 2021

As with Joanna Nell’s three previous books, this one focusses on the ageing woman, on society’s attitudes to them and their own needs and strengths.

In this case, however, there is the added lens of a young character in the person of Chloe,17 at the start of the story, and on a Duke of Edinburgh Award placement at the hospital cafeteria run by the commanding Hilary Halliday and her jovial if often chivvied assistant, Joy Grainger. These two ladies are in their seventies.

Joanna Nell talks to Barbie about The Tea Ladies of St Jude’s Hospital

All of these women are holding secrets and battling grief of different kinds. A threat comes to the Marjorie Marshall Memorial Cafeteria in the form of trendy new eatery Platter, but even more so the planned refurbishment of the hospital foyer to include a meditation pod which will be installed on the site of the cafeteria.

It’s really a question of change, of modernity, of emphasising the business side of the hospital over its human, albeit slightly dowdy and old -fashioned touch. But the women of this volunteer fundraising outfit won’t take this threat lying down and they not only draw on all their wiles but also become a solid team in the process.

This author’s work is always a respectful though gently ironic look at ageing people and ageing itself. Her book people are allowed faults and foibles along with their positive character traits and are allowed to continue learning (‘at their age’) from life and its vicissitudes.

Joanna Nell artfully pokes fun at all sorts of societal and institutional subjects – everything from the trendyism of the food and hospitality industry to the politics of hospital hierarchies, from the compulsory workplace first aid course to the meaningless jargon of the business and training world.

It is the sympathetic portrayal of her characters as they work their way through difficulties and pain that so captures us as readers. We are immediately able to see ourselves there, or others we know well.

There is foolishness, blindness, lack of judgment – but also love, compassion, strength of purpose and good humour. As each of our heroines finds her way through, we are pulling for them, wishing them well in their quests for accomplishment, for acceptance, for the finding of self-worth.

Joanna Nell is an accomplished writer, whose life experiences and quiet wry sense of humour make a perfect recipe for this style of fiction. She’s an astute observer of the human condition, neither harshly judgmental nor averse to poking fun where it is deserved.

Many little comic episodes are scattered through the narrative – the missing false eyelash, the exploding milk shake, the installation of a chandelier, the visit to Platter. They avoid becoming slapstick somehow as the seriousness of the underfelt of this story demands our attention.

No fuss love is at the core of this book – everything from youthful crushes and uncertainty to the solidity of a fifty-plus year marriage and the impossibility of contemplating life without it. Dedication to community and commitment to an often exhausting profession are other facets of love acknowledged in this work.

It is light of hand but accurately charts the equal joys and hurts of ageing. Another triumph, I suspect, for Jo Nell, and a promise of more to come wherever the stories take her. I’ll be waiting in the wings.

Thank you to Hachette for my review copy and to Joanna Nell for speaking with me about this work – always such a pleasure.