Book Review: On The Bright Side

On The Bright Side, by Hendrik Groen (translated by Hester Velmans), is the new secret diary from the Dutch octogenarian whose first offering, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, I review here. It is similar in scope so I will not repeat my thoughts – do check out that link for an overview. This sequel is as well written, equally amusing and offers further food for thought. Hendrik’s health continues to deteriorate but he remains sharp enough to provide candid observations on living into old age along with the treatment of the elderly by their peers and those who have not yet experienced the trials of advancing years.

Still living in a state run care home and enjoying his membership of the Old But Not Dead Club, Hendrik returns to keeping his diary after a year’s break during which he mourned the passing of his beloved Eefje. Grietje has been moved to the dementia wing but the remaining club members, along with two newly elected additions, are still doing their best to indulge in whatever pursuits their failing bodies allow. The diary entries include details of outings to local landmarks, tourist sites and restaurants as well as the day to day issues that must be faced when a body is no longer functioning as it should. Although poignant, the telling is humorous. There is no shying away from incontinence, odours and the restricted speed at which elderly people shuffle or roll from place to place. The delight they take in simple pleasures contrasts with the potential boredom and inertia that builds when nothing is required of them day after day.

A new, national Health Care Law is proving a cause for concern. The rising elderly population is making the cost of their care a hot political issue, with news of cutbacks and closures of affordable homes increasingly prevalent. Mrs Slothouwer, the prickly and evasive manager, is refusing to share whatever plans are being discussed by the care home’s board. The residents have noticed that vacated rooms are not being filled as they once were despite reported waiting lists of many years. In an attempt to find out more, particularly if their home is to be closed or, worse, privatised, the Old But Not Dead Club plan a coup of the Residents Committee.

Given the ages of the inmates, death is a regular occurrence and one that Hendrik ponders and considers planning for. Although suffering maudlin moments he remains determined to make the best of whatever time he has left. His musings on the preoccupations of his fellow residents, their behaviours both deliberate and inadvertent, are considered and direct but largely sympathetic. He has an attitude and demeanour I have rarely experienced amongst elderly people. I wonder if there is an inability to communicate across generations. Hendrik’s views on children belie my own impressions of criticism from his age group. This is, of course, a work of fiction and offers a balance between poignancy and humour.

The writing is tightly woven and entertaining. Most day’s entries are between half a page and a page in length so offer snapshots of varying seriousness. The Old But Not Dead Club are as subversive as is possible given its member’s ages. The help they receive from drivers and others made me wonder how many in reality would ever enjoy such compassion and willing attention.

This is an enjoyable tale as well as a reminder that growing old is a double edged sword. Enlightening, touching, and laugh out loud funny, it is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Michael Joseph.

Book Review: The Evenings

The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (translated by Sam Garrett), is a book about one man’s ennui. Set in post war Amsterdam, its protagonist is twenty-three year old Frits van Egters, an office worker still living with his parents. The story follows his day to day existence over the course of a few weeks in December. His actions, mostly banal, are presented in hour by hour detail. There are repeated references to the clock as he watches time slowly pass, frustrated by his lack of fulfilment.

Frits leads an ordinary life in every sense. He cycles to and from work, prepares food or eats with his parents. He calls in on friends, visits the cinema, seeks company then counts the minutes until he can leave.

Frits is not a pleasant character, although this view is exacerbated by the detail of his private thoughts which few would ever share. He treats his parents with contempt, insults his friends with impunity. Uncomfortable with silence when with others, his conversation is often offensive.

Amongst his friends there is cruelty, in word and deed. A dog is tortured, the young men exchange anecdotes about the deaths of children, they imagine how they would choose to kill. As a young boy, Fritz dismembered insects and took fish out of water just to see how they would cope, how long they would live. He states that women are ‘defective, deplorable creatures’. He advocates the culling of all those over sixty.

Much of what he says is taken as humour by his friends who, despite knowing he failed at school, consider him a thinker. Fritz has a relentless preoccupation with baldness coming up with many wild theories for its cause and prevention.

In the privacy of his home Fritz will examine himself in front of mirrors. Despite deploring his parents’ slurps and unhygienic practices, he too has distasteful personal habits. He sleeps long hours when he has the opportunity and suffers vivid, violent dreams.

I found the telling repetitive, a book about boredom that I wanted to end. In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, proved that the meticulous detail of a life can be portrayed with humour. Unlike that perspicacious tale, I found this soulless.

Other reviewers have described this book as funny and it is not the first time I have failed to see the vaunted humour in a portrayal. The voice and structure cannot be faulted, the setting and imagery impress, but this was not a book I enjoyed reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.