About 16 years ago now I had my first experience of trying to live alongside another generation. My then husband and I had to make a decision about where we needed to live for the next stage of life. I had finished my first degree and he had retired with ill health, from a post at The Open University. There was no need to stay in Milton Keynes any more and all my family were in Lincolnshire. My father in law Aleksander wanted to downsize, since he was rattling around in the big family home still. He had decided to spend a proportion of his year with my brother in law and his wife in New Zealand, so he could spend time with the grandchildren, and the rest with us. In Sarah Butler’s novel we meet a couple at a crossroads, working out what to do with the rest of their lives.
Aleks didn’t know his age. He was taken, with his family, from Poland to Siberia during WW2. His father was a cavalry officer, and families of the military were taken away to internment camps there. He never saw his father again, his elder brother died in Siberia, whilst Aleks and his mother escaped and joined a group of escapees in the forest. At the end of the war they walked their way to England via the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean. Aleks was a quiet, stoic man who had endured a lot in his life. I never imagined we would clash as much as we did when living together. He would treat my 40 year old husband like he was a little boy – even coming into our bedroom to kiss him on the forehead! He had a precise routine and it was very difficult to move him from it. He walked to get his paper first thing, did the Sudoku and had a nap in the morning, food times were very important and he was sure I should be home by a certain time if I’d gone out so he could lock up. If a friend popped in to visit we would just settle down with a cuppa and he would pull up a chair and join in. Nothing was private and if something was happening we should do it together as a family. He would also clip amusingly apt newspaper articles and leave them for me – my personal favourite was the one about women with big bottoms living longer.
What I hadn’t realised was that in Poland three generations routinely live together, sometimes in very small apartments and it was normal to know each other’s business. He thought living with us meant being part of everything we did. I didn’t always value what he had to offer and now he’s gone, even though he lived on the other side of the world, I miss him terribly. In missing him I started to understand him. It started me thinking about how we view the older generation in this country. We don’t revere them for their experience or respect their knowledge – as Bet says in this novel we just want them tidied away into a home where we can visit at our convenience once a week then forget about them. If we don’t see the beauty or usefulness in something we tend to tuck it away where it can’t be seen, and this brutal truth extends to people. Getting older isn’t pretty.
Jack and Bet are in their eighties and have lived 44 of their years in Elephant and Castle, London. There’s a bewilderment about them both when they talk about their living situation. They had a house until the 1960s when the council decided on ‘slum clearance’ and built high rise tower blocks. Their flat, high up in the tower block, was full of light with huge windows and a view over the city. They loved their flat. Then forty years on the council decided the tower blocks had to come down. Now they’re in a small flat and their original home is hard for Jack to locate. Every morning, he strolls past the site and gazes through the wire fence at the diggers pulling down walls, revealing glimpses of bedroom wallpaper. It seems almost obscene, this exposure of people’s private spaces. He gazes into the air to see if he can work out where their home was, but there’s only empty air. They are totally displaced. It is while gazing through the fence that he meets Marinela, a twenty something photography student from Romania.
In every marriage there are secrets and Marinela seems to unlock them. Jack invites her to Their 70th wedding anniversary celebration and asks her to take a portrait of his wife. Marinela and Bet strike up a friendship. They seem to share a connection beyond their difference in age. I love how Sarah Butler depicts this friendship as one of equals. Marinela loves being with Bet, and at one point in the novel, at a party, she wishes she was sharing a pot of tea and stories at Bet’s home. Even when Bet gives her a dress, then the flat, there is an exchange of favours. Marinela goes to their home three times a week to clean, help them unpack and prep an evening meal. In return Bet takes her to Islington and shows her a flat, where Marinela can live in return for the work she does. Bet tells her that many years ago, before she and Jack started a family, she had an affair with Kit, an American. This flat was where they used to meet. Bet had the chance to leave Jack and go to America but she stayed. Jack knows about the affair, but when Kit died and left Bet the Islington flat he told her to give it back. Bet was paralysed, not able to see it but not able to return it either, it has simply been sitting empty. Now, finally, it can be of use. Bet is happy with the arrangement she’s made. Jack simply thinks Marinela visits a lot and the help means they can get Tommy, their son, off their back.
Tommy is a hard character to fathom and is equally hard to like at times. From the beginning we can see something missing in the relationship between Bet and her son. He lives alone and we learn that he’s been married twice and is dipping his toe in the water with internet dating. Bet notices he is dying his hair and wearing clothes for a much younger man, than his 60+ years. I felt like Tommy doesn’t see his parents as people in the same way Marinela does. In fact it’s very telling that he assumes Marinela must have an ulterior motive for hanging round his parents – it tells us how little he knows or understands them. He complains about the boxes left packed in the living room, but never offers to help with them, nor is he curious about their contents. His parents and their keepsakes are a treasure trove of stories and advice. Yet, Tommy pops by once a week gently pushing them to have Meals on Wheels, home care or even go into a nursing home. Does he even realise his parents love each other? He hasn’t realised or thought about the implications of most homes having a single occupant per room. What will he do when he finds out about his Mum’s secrets?
Jack is quieter than Bet and very thoughtful. He seems more bewildered by changes than Bet, less able to adapt. He sits between his son and Bet, always trying to keep the peace while usually offending one or both of them at once. However, he’s remarkably wise, especially about long marriages. He makes sure his son knows that Bet was a good wife and that after surviving this long as a couple, her infidelity is merely a blip in a whole lifetime of love. Early on in the novel he points out that if Bet doesn’t seem herself or their relationship seems strained the best thing to do is let it be, invariably things go back to normal. There were times he made me think, not just as a reader, but as a counsellor too. He made me think about our expectations of long term relationships. Yes it’s good to have boundaries, but these days do we draw our line in the sand way too early? Our life partner ( and us) is bound to make mistakes – sometimes really big ones. I remember once surprising a client dealing with infidelity, by pointing out she still had choices. She was grieving for her fairy tale ending and seemed to think the only solution was splitting up. I reminded her that she was allowed to forgive and work together to fix what was broken. As Jack seems to realise, infidelity isn’t always the worst transgression in a marriage.
I enjoyed the way Butler was exploring and commenting on love in the 21st Century. Marinela has left Romania after a bad break up with a married man. In London she has a friend, Harry, a post-graduate student at the university. She comments early on that she likes him but can’t imagine kissing him. Do we put people into labelled boxes or categories too soon? Why can’t we just relax, spend time together and slowly see what develops? Similarly, Tommy seems unsure about being his authentic self on the dating market. Where we can dismiss someone with a quick swipe to the right, what lengths will we go to, to appear younger, fitter and more appealing? Butler uses descriptions of the old couple’s appearance to press home the point that, especially for women, ageing can be hard to accept. Yet whenever he looks at her, Jack sees Bet’s beauty. Bet remembers wearing the green dress and being supremely confident in her young body, not just for the way she looks but for the ease of movement and the knowledge it will always do what she asks of it. As a person with MS I understand this loss of control; a realisation that your body can let you down. I liked the dissonance between the way Tommy sees their lives as all risk, whereas his parents are still surprised when their body fails them. We all remain young in our heads.
As you can probably tell by the amount I’ve written , I really did connect with this book and these characters. Their inner lives are so rich and full, despite their outer lives shrinking to four walls and a list of risk factors. I’m firmly behind Jack and Bet’s wish to remain independent and together, rather than packaged up neatly where they won’t trouble anyone. My heart broke every time Tommy tried to force them into dependence and his treatment of Marinela made me so angry. Somehow, even though the novel is a light, easy read, Butler engaged my emotions and drew me into this story. The link between the couple’s declining health and the decline of their surroundings is beautifully written. Jack and Bet are desperately trying to stay contained, physically and emotionally. If people see that they can’t cope, if social services start poking around, and if Tommy knows about his Mum’s past they will be as broken open and brutally exposed as the old flats and the sad glimpses of life within. If they stay intact, they can’t be separated. This might seem a slight book to some because of its gentleness and leisurely pace but I think that’s deliberate. Like Jack and Bet, the book seems low on action, but all of human life is in these pages. If I come across a client struggling in Tommy’s position, I would recommend they read this book before making decisions or choices on their parent’s behalf. It teaches us to engage with others at a slower pace, to get to know others and to find friends in unlikely places, wherever they’re from and however old they may be.
Thank you to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for the chance to join the blog tour. Check out the list above for other reader’s responses to the novel.
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This is the humorous story of two daughters trying to cope with the marriage of their elderly father Nikolai, to the very highly sexed and much younger Valentina. A brilliant look at being a first and second generation immigrant and the what the combined culture and generation gap does to our relationship. Nikolai sounded so much like my father in law I thought the writer might know him!
Sarah Butler’s debut novel that also touches on themes of age, decline and not judging people on first impressions. Alice returns home just in time to say goodbye to her dying father. Daniel has been homeless for thirty years but has come to view the London streets as his anchor and the inspiration for his art. This novel is about both rootlessness and homecoming.