If Joan Barfoot is tired of playing bridesmaid to her fellow writers when it comes to the list of prestigious awards she has short- and long-listed for but not won (the Giller and Man Booker most notably), then at least with this, her eleventh novel, she can boast patent to her own unique genre of writing, one that might be called the death-com by way of antidote to the rom-com: the cutesy abbreviation of the generally cutesy narrative form known as the romantic comedy.
Is Barfoot mortality-obsessed? One hopes so, because it’s an obsession that is apparently a portal to some very lively, acerbic, and at times deeply moving writing.
Where 2005’s Giller-nominated Luck used death as a springboard for the Barfootian unravelling of its characters’ pasts, here the point of entry is more insidious, the setting being a newly built retirement “lodge,” the Idyll Inn, whose name has a potential for irony that is initially unproven, but safely assumed. At the very least it points to a state of innocence that we feel sure is not to be borne out by the actions of its characters, all of whom end up there as a result of the exercising, or not, of various levels of volition.
At one extreme is Sylvia Lodge, the lawyer’s widow who arrives under her own considerable steam, faculties still intact, and passive-aggressively not having told her middle-aged daughter about the move, a snubbing about which she takes a disturbingly sordid glee. At the other end of the equation is George Hammond, the one-time owner of a well-known shoe store, who is brought in decidedly less willingly, post-stroke and wheelchair bound, by his own daughter, whose cajoling he bitterly rejects as a candy-coated form of parental abandonment. This, despite the fact that he has rarely visited the nursing home where he has already parked his dementia-stricken wife, Alice.
Between these two are steadfast Greta, a German immigrant who worked at George’s store after her husband died in a tragic work accident when her three girls were still small, and Ruth, a childless ex-Children’s Aid worker whose own husband died of cancer some years back.
As the Idyll Inn is located in a small-sized city, connections between its residents are inevitable and, indeed, desirable as the source of much of the novel’s delightfully dirty laundry. Greta, it seems, did more than simply restock shoes when she worked for George, while Sylvia’s memories of her own transgressions with her husband’s law partner are kept fresh by the constant presence of her ex-lover’s daughter, Annabel, now employed as the lodge’s efficient, but rather humourless manager.
The four main characters quickly form a friendship based around the wine in Sylvia’s bar fridge, Ruth’s readings of the day’s dour headlines and their collective skepticism about the corporately prescribed good intentions of their new home.
But it is the otherwise stolid Ruth who unhinges the group when she asks for their help in executing a plan she has concocted to end her life: a life that she sees as productive but now past its due date. The proposal forces the other characters to assess the state of their own rapidly diminishing prospects, unleashing a torrent of the kind of black humour at which Barfoot excels.
In the final resolution to Ruth’s “problem,” however, and although she struggles valiantly to keep her sardonic wit intact, Barfoot makes a couple of rare missteps by sliding uncomfortably toward the saccharine. It’s as if she gets a bit too swept up in the moment, and forgets the current ban on sentimentality in fiction: a lapse that admittedly has its own, decidedly human charm. Ruth’s friends’ moral quandary becomes the plot’s driving force but it is the stuff in between: the webs of human interconnectivity, the disloyalties, snipeyness and, uniquely, the empowered appreciation of old age as the continuation of a life that are its true, most valuable, currency. This is another a worthy novel from Barfoot of disarming insight and complexity.