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Book Nook - 18-07-2016

Monday, July 18, 2016

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]

Four Funerals & A Wedding
India is just about beginning to realise problem of elder care— people are living longer, in urban areas homes are getting smaller; with everyone out at work, there is nobody at home to look after old people in the family, unless they are rich enough to afford help. Our culture still looks down upon homes for senior citizens, though in the West, it is an accepted form of ‘vanaprastham.’

It is believed that in wealthy nations, elders are well looked after in old age homes, so it is shocking to read Finnish journalist-turned-author Minna Lindgren’s Death In Sunset Grove (in an English translation), which busts that myth. It is the first of a trilogy, which for the English market has been labelled The Lavender Ladies Detective Agency Series.  This might actually do the book a disservice, because it immediately brings to mind Alexander McCall Smith’s popular The Ladies No 1 Detective Agency which is very different; also comparing it to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books is not quite accurate. The ladies here are not really detectives, they just want to correct a few wrongs, by finding out what is really going on in the place where they have come to spend the last yeats of their lives.

Lindgren reportedly wrote the book after doing a magazine article about retirement homes in Finland (for which she won an award). The book is set in such an establishment, called Sunset Grove. The three protagonists of the book--Siiri, Irma, and Anna-Liisa, are in the nineties; they have lost their husbands, some children and friends, simply by outliving them. Lindgren does not look at old age with rose-tinted glasses—behind the camaraderie and humour, is fear of loneliness, illness, and loss of dignity. There is also the carefree attitude that comes with such advanced age—what it the worst that can happen?  Death?

The Lavender Ladies—so called because in the opening scene of the novel, they are all dressed in varying shades of purple-- are all aflutter about the sudden death of the young cook at the Grove. As they cope with the mostly clueless director of the home and the vicious head nurse, they realise there is much else to worry about.  Anyone who asks too many questions is seen as a trouble-maker, quickly sedated and bundled off to a closed section for dementia patients, where mistreatment and over-medication drives them to a vegetative state, and speeds up the end.

The lives of the women, with their dietary and fashion quirks, their days spent reading, gossiping, playing cards or wandering about, are punctuated with funerals of inmates, which, for them are special occasions. Siiri is the kind who takes long tram rides and observes Helsinki’s architectural marvels. 

When her best friend Irma is locked up in the out-of-bounds dementia ward, Siiri, with some unexpected help from Anna-Liisa rescues her. In their adventures they are aided by a cab driver Mika, who opens their eyes to the criminal goings on in the home, and is not averse to resorting to crime himself, if it would help his lady friends in Sunset Grove.

The women observe that the quality of the staff deteriorates over time, with untrained young immigrants, who can’t speak the language, being dumped with duties of looking after old people, because nobody wants to do it.

Their own children are too busy to care, but it seems particularly heartless when the daughter of one of them says she can’t make the time to visit, because she has to look after her horses. When it looks like Irma would return from the hospital, her family, whom she calls “her darlings” turn up to divide up her belongings.

The book is funny and full of hope, laughter and courage, but also depressing—if old age means indifference of the family and the casual cruelty of strangers. Still, the wonderful characters in Lindgren’s book, find ways to be happy, and reasons to go on living.
Death In Sunset Grove
by Minna Lindgren
Translated Lola Rogers
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 384

Excerpt of Death in Sunset Grove
Every morning Siiri Kettunen woke up and realized that she wasn’t dead yet. Then she got out of bed, washed, dressed and ate something for breakfast. It took her a while, but she had the time. She read the newspaper diligently and listened to the morning radio shows. It made her feel like she belonged in this world. She often went for a ride on the tram around eleven o’clock, but she didn’t feel like it today.

The bright institutional lighting gave the common room of Sunset Grove retirement home the atmosphere of a dentist’s waiting room. Several residents dozed on the sofas, waiting for lunch. In the corner Anna-Liisa, Irma and the Ambassador were playing rummy at the cloth-covered card table. The Ambassador was absorbed in his own cards, Anna-Liisa was keeping up a running commentary on the other players’ hands, and Irma was looking impatient at the slow progress of the game. Then she saw Siiri and her eyes brightened.

‘Cock-a-doodle-doo!’ she crowed in a high falsetto, waving with a broad sweep of her arm like a train conductor. Irma Lännenleimu had taken singing lessons in her youth and had once sung the Cherubino aria to piano accompaniment at the conservatory matinee, and since student performances were reviewed back then, a newspaper music critic had praised her voice as supple and resonant. This crowing call was Irma and Siiri’s customary greeting. It always worked, even in the middle of a noisy conversation or on a busy street.

‘Guess what?’ Irma said, before Siiri had even sat down at the table. ‘The Hat Lady in C wing isn’t dead after all. And we’d practically finished grieving for her!’ She laughed until her plump body jiggled and her voice rang even higher. Irma always wore a dress, preferably dark in colour, and even on ordinary days wore earrings with many-faceted stones, a string of pearls around her neck and two gold bracelets on her left wrist. When she spoke, her exuberant gestures made the bracelets jangle pleasantly.

Last week the flag at Sunset Grove had been flown at half mast, and since they hadn’t seen the Hat Lady for several days, they’d thought she had died. But yesterday she had reappeared, wearing her broad-brimmed turquoise hat and playing bingo like she always did. She’d just been out getting a spare part for her heart, and in the process had nearly died of a cardiac infarction.

‘She says she may live for ten more years, poor thing,’ Irma said.

Siiri laughed, her grey eyes twinkling. Irma made the woman’s medical recovery sound like an extended sentence, which, of course, it was.

‘It wasn’t a spare part for her heart, strictly speaking,’ Anna-Liisa said in that no-nonsense way she had of correcting any errors or discrepancies of meaning. It was an obsession with her. Siiri and Irma thought it was due to the fact that Anna-Liisa had once been a Finnish language and literature teacher.

‘I got a red three!’ the Ambassador shouted but that didn’t stop Anna-Liisa.

‘Angioplasty is the vernacular, the most commonly used term for it. They use a thing called a stent, a sort of mesh tube, to hold the artery open.’

Anna-Liisa was a tall woman with a deep, full-throated voice. She knew everything you could possibly know about angioplasty, replacement parts, local anaesthetic and arthroscopic surgery, but they never paid any attention to her explanations. Having worked as a teacher, however, Anna-Liisa was used to not being listened to.

‘It’s sheer lunacy to get spare parts at the age of ninety,’ Siiri said. Everyone else agreed.

‘Do you think you’ll live to be a hundred, girls?’ the Ambassador asked, laying his cards down on the table and straightening his tie. He always dressed correctly, as befitted a former diplomat, in a smart shirt, tie, brown smoking jacket and straight-legged trousers, which was nice, since many of the men at Sunset Grove shambled around in ugly tracksuits. On important days and Sundays the Ambassador wore a tidy suit with an oak-leaf veteran’s insignia on the lapel.

‘It’s not as if it matters what we think,’ Siiri said, because that’s what she thought. ‘I wouldn’t want to be that old, though.’

‘If it wasn’t the Hat Lady who died last week, I wonder who it was,’ Irma said. She was very curious and always on the lookout for gossip at Sunset Grove. Her information on this event had been proved wrong, and so, understandably, she was a little upset about it.

‘It was that boy, the cook. Tero, I think his name was,’ Anna-Liisa said, laying down three sevens.

Siiri’s head buzzed and her throat felt dry. She stared at Anna-Liisa. She couldn’t believe that Tero could be dead. Irma, on the other hand, looked delighted at the news because she remembered that she had heard about it before, and then promptly forgotten about it.

‘That’s right! You really liked Tero, didn’t you, Siiri? Was his name Tero? Have you noticed how young men nowadays all have two-syllable names: Tero, Pasi, Vesa, Tomi? Imagine my not telling you about it right away. I heard about it yesterday from the masseuse, but after all her pummelling I was so worn out that I just had a whisky and went to bed. My doctor has prescribed whisky for my . . . my everything. Look, I’ve got two sevens for you, Anna-Liisa!’

Suddenly Siiri felt sad. She missed Tero so much that her stomach hurt. How was it possible that such a healthy young man could die while ninety-four-year-olds never seemed to? Siiri had read in the paper that once you lived to be ninety you stopped ageing. How horrible. That meant that over-aged people like her were late for their death. First everybody died – friends, spouses – then nobody did. Two of Siiri’s children were already dead: her eldest son from too much alcohol and her youngest from too much food. He’d been the baby of the family – a handsome, athletic boy when he was young. But then he ate himself to such a girth, doing nothing outside work, driving everywhere he went, eating pizza and crisps and smoking cigarettes. It was called affluenza – when a person reaches such a high standard of living that they die from it at the age of sixty-five.

But Tero, the cook at Sunset Grove, was thirty-five if he was a day, and he hadn’t looked sick at all. On the contrary, he’d been glowing with good health, the way only a healthy young man can. Broad shoulders, strong hands, good colour in his face – that was the kind of person he was. And when he smiled he had dimples in both cheeks.

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