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Pickle Me This

August 17, 2008

Exit Lines by Joan Barfoot

The problem of contemporary elderliness is illuminated by Sylvia Lodge, both a character in Joan Barfoot’s new novel Exit Lines and a resident of the Idyll Inn Retirement home. Whilst listening to an off-key choir’s performance, she notes, “And there’s a repertoire issue– do you suppose they realize that ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ thoroughly predates the most ancient among us?”

It is this institutionalization of age that Barfoot is working with in her new book, quite literally first with the Idyll Inn itself, “the latest addition to a small chain… a numbered company run by a management group on behalf of a collective of professionals, mostly dentists and doctors, interested in untroublesome, steady investment in what’s bound to be a growth industry.” The Idyll Inn’s opening beginning the book, everything freshly painted, brightly new, though the roof will be leaking in months and the sod isn’t laid yet. Presided over by Annabel Walker, who has the dubious distinction of being the daughter of the man with which Sylvia Lodge had had a longstanding affair.

Of course in a small city like the one in which the Idyll Inn is placed, such connections abound. Greta Bauer is not wholly surprised to find living down the hall her ex-lover George Hammond (who had been her boss at the shoe store), though George is now mostly immobile and has lost much of his speech since his most recent stroke. Ruth Friedman is sure she’ll come into contact with some from her Social Worker days, though probably not the children, she admits, but a former colleague, or an old board member.

“Companions gained late in life have not been present. They must take each other only on grounds of what is recounted, and then see how they balance and fit.” Sylvia, Greta, George and Ruth coming together rather circumstantially, by virtue of a shared table that first day at the Idyll Inn. Beginning to share their stories, beginning the process of balance and fit, and Barfoot does this rather wonderfully, no small narrative feat for one backward glance after another. With a delicious dark humour and tenderness, the narrative voice moves deftly from one character to another, and each of them wholly present– the perspective of the aphasic George particularly well done, as well as that of Greta, long ago an immigrant beginning to lose the language she’d worked so hard to acquire.

The novel, with all its backward glances, is structured in the present around a request Ruth makes of her new friends at the Idyll Inn once she’s known them for a while. A request which causes them to consider the bounds of their circumstantial friendship, and also reflect upon their own experiences. I found this part of the narrative less compelling than it was meant to be, and less surprising also. Casting the novel’s pace a bit off balance, and perhaps less the novel’s drive than an excuse for the rest of it, but in this way it was still not unsuccessful.

For the characters Barfoot has drawn in George, Sylvia, Greta and Ruth, first and foremost, but also for the consideration of the problem of contemporary elderliness, which I’ve mentioned already. No longer an institution, raised up by a Great Depression and made solid by a world war, feet tapping to very same songs, instead today’s elderly are a more complicated matter. Having come from all kinds of places, and growing old at altogether different rates, with various needs, medical and otherwise, there is no single song that off-key choir could sing.

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