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Joan Barfoot, Exit Lines – TLS

07/04/2008

Angela Carter used to say you could tell a lot about a writer from the way they depicted charwomen. They’ve disappeared from view now, but for some writers their place seems to have been taken by homosexuals. Not that Joan Barfoot makes hers a figure of fun. But a glimpse of Art Fletcher, shouting obscenities and wielding knives in the kitchen of the Idyll Inn, is revealing.

Art is an outsider and a minor character, a reminder of what happens in this Canadian “retirement lodge” to those who revolt (the police haul you away). To the principal players who’ve arrived here on their last legs – George, a stroke victim; Sylvia suffering arthritis; Greta, who’s had a heart attack; and Ruth, youngest and healthiest – his actions are indecipherable. (Is it because he is gay, George wonders?)

The quartet are from a small town, connected as even the old are these days by adultery and shopping (Grace worked in a drugstore, George ran a shoe shop, three of them had affairs in the grubby ABC). They come together in an ad hoc self-help group, bolstering themselves against the intrusions of their paid carers, and the conspiracies of their failing bodies. Because they share circumstances and history, they rub along quite well. The women make George their pet project, encouraging his recuperation with leg lifts and arm bends, while Ruth reads out newspaper stories – reports from a ruined world. But these are not only to concentrate George’s wandering mind, they are part of a bigger plot: Ruth wants to die and needs help to do it. So the daily horror show is tendentious, an argument about human expendability.

On her website Barfoot tells of her admiration for “the several British Penelopes”, those writers of bourgeois domesticity who reigned before Rushdie and his multitudes trampled the gates, letting the world in to British fiction, permanently altering its balance of power. Asked about the success of the women writers she is compared to – Atwood, Laurence and Shields – Barfoot says that in contrast to the country next door, theirs is a female culture: Canadian life resembles domestic life, meaning that, like the characters in her novel, Canada co-operates and compromises: “rubbing along”, it tries to do no harm.

It’s a spirit best exemplified by Ruth, once a social worker, saving children from “cruel or inept” parents. Now, though, even ‘good’ lives are harmful: oil, jewellery, coffee, tea, sugar, all involve exploitation or the death of others. But our “ruinous species” connected by trade, is divided in understanding. A pattern Barfoot reproduces in her novel. For those inside the gates, she is discerning – Ruth’s suffocation of her cancer-ridden husband is construed as killing with kindness. Cruelty is what happens out there – the selfish or stupid parents Ruth encounters in her work, the knife-wielding homosexual, the barbaric foreigners in the papers: “kidnapped teen rapist-killers…festooned with ears and… fetuses carved and sliced from dead wombs”, whose behaviour is beyond the pale, beyond comprehension.

The novel ends with a narrative twist. Under Sylvia’s defiant leadership they will recruit new members into a kind of pyramid scheme for assisted suicide: an endless supply of people approaching death’s door means no one need ever be last in the exit line. Meanwhile (in the consoling manner of fiction) nobody dies here. Barfoot has Life interrupt and the geriatric comrades end by saving a soul, rather than despatching one. Tomorrow there will be birthdays and banana cake.

This review first appeared as ‘Rubbing Along’, in the TLS, 5.4.08.

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