Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 240 pages; 2010.
A novel set in a nursing home doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, but in the very capable hands of Australia’s grand dame of letters, Elizabeth Jolley, it’s actually a wonderful black comedy in the tradition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Jolley, who died in 2007, wrote 15 novels. Mr Scobie’s Riddle, her fourth, was published in 1983 and won the Age book of the year that same year. It has recently been reprinted in the lovely Penguin Modern Classics livery I love so much.
Mr Scobie of the title is an 85-year-old retired music teacher, who is admitted to St. Christopher and St. Jude, a rather dubious nursing home presided over by Matron Hyacinth Price. Matron isn’t exactly Nurse Ratched, but she does have her eyes on her patient’s worldly goods and cons them into signing them over. As she battles to keep the home from falling into bankruptcy she has other problems with which to contend: her cook has a raging temper and a penchant for swearing loudly, her night nurse won’t follow instructions, and she struggles to find — and keep — female staff. To complicate matters further, her housekeeper has married her bigamist husband, and now she’s hiding him in the caravan out the back. Oh yes, this is all ripe for farce.
And then there’s the patients. Miss Hailey, who’s just 60 years old, is a nutty writer who’s penned a novel rejected by more than 40 publishers and a poem branded “indecent” by the Town Clerk. Mr Hughes is a retired Welsh farmer who has problems with his bowels. And Mr Privett writes an advertisement selling his body for a “reasonable price”.
Throw in all-night card games, female staff who gossip like schoolgirls, and patients who make bids for escape, and it’s clear that Jolley’s created a rather funny novel. But she treads a very fine line between comedy and pathos, and only a blinkered reader would miss the social commentary that runs throughout this novel.
Ms Jolley has a lot to say about the lack of respect society has for those we brand “old folk”. We see this via Mr Scobie’s abject misery at having to give up his lovely house and land at Rosewood East. Indeed his riddle — that death is the only certainty in life — isn’t as funny as it might sound. This is a man who hankers for the past because he knows there is no future. Not even his nephew, a burglar on the run, and his niece, who has settled for an unsuitable man, give him any cheer. Instead, he’s locked up in a house full of “evil people” with whom he has nothing in common but age. Any wonder he tries to escape?
I went through a whole gamut of emotions as I read Mr Scobie’s Riddle. I laughed, I got angry, I tried not to cry. It’s a truly poignant novel peopled with a cast of characters that feel very human despite their eccentricity. I loved this book, and think it deserves a re-read if only to pick up on all the gentle nuances I missed first time round.
Please note that the Penguin Modern Classics edition is only available in Australia, but if you live in the UK you should be able to pick up older secondhand editions for just a pound or two online. It will be money well spent.