Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
The prologue to The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home, with its juxtapositioning of a fall from a rickety ladder with the drift into an anaesthetic induced sleep, was an interesting introduction to this novel.
Dr Joanna Nell, the author of this book, spent a considerable amount of time in nursing homes as a visiting GP which she found was a better fit for her doctoring style and personality. Getting to know people on those more intimate and familiar terms has given her extensive insight into this demographic. Her foray into writing has been received with much acclaim. Her earlier novels The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village and The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker have become national best sellers.
In her 2020 publication, The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home, she allows the story to unfold alternately, through the eyes and actions of two older citizens who find themselves in this establishment rehabilitating after surgery. Neither wants to be there.
At the age of eighty-nine, Hattie Bloom found herself unable to return to her solitary existence at home. Her life had been on the edge of society, an observer of human behaviour which she often compared to that of her beloved birds. She had always been self-sufficient and quite content with her own company. Having never married, she resented people calling her ‘Mrs’. To find herself in this new environment was quite a challenge for her.
Walter Clements, at ninety, had always considered himself to be ‘an average man, an average father, an average husband’ (360). However, probably to build his own self-esteem, he liked to think that he provided a bit of entertainment with ‘his light banter and witty repartee’ (37), especially with the female therapists. ‘He was the funny guy. Funny was who he was. It was all he had left’ (79). He had ended up in this facility after the grief and depression from losing his wife, ‘had steered his front wheels towards the telegraph pole’ (18). On first meeting him, Hattie found him ‘objectionable’.
Joanna Nell has used these two characters to profile the running of establishments for those who can no longer look after themselves. As a visiting doctor, she has ‘seen many frail older people thrive in stimulating and caring environments, regain their health and strength, and embrace a whole new community of friends’ (369). She has also come across those ‘for whom the loss of independence in transitioning into care has not been easy’ (369) and who have attempted to escape.
This novel has a light-hearted feel about it with the plotting to escape, the Red Sea aquarium and Fairy-liquid frothing fish fountain (232). One should not forget Walter’s disastrous driving test for his new Tesla mobility scooter or the commandeering of the facility vehicle. It is also uplifting to be privy to the friendships which develop within this centre and the dedication of most of the staff and family members.
This writer has a lovely way of drawing parallels with setting and characters to that of well-known icons. The words in the title, ‘The great escape’, not only highlight the feelings and planning of some of the residents but it also references one of Walter’s best loved movies, starring Steve McQueen. Throughout the novel there are also references to the board game Monopoly. The residents’ rooms all bear names which would not be out-of-place on the game. Hettie was in Old Kent Road, Walter in White Chapel Road and their dying friend Murray in the more upmarket Bond Street. Within the centre there were also places like Piccadilly, Liverpool Street Station, Mayfair, and Park Lane.
I loved Hettie’s comparisons and parallels between the actions of the residents and those of her bird friends. Walter reminded her of a kookaburra – always laughing at his own jokes (161). The staff particularly fascinated her. ‘She came to recognise their calls and their favourite roosts’ (22). Some flocked together, others were more solitary and like birds they had a pecking order too. The noises around her also mimicked those of the birds. The tea-trolley sounded like screeching black cockatoos while the sound of the medical trolley was more like a sorrowful koel.
If I ever need to go into one of these facilities, I hope it is one that has a Night Owls activity – a clandestine club run by a Sister Bronwyn figure. What a wonderful invention -a setting where those who have trouble sleeping at night could find a sense of purpose and worth.
Like her earlier novels The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home by Joanna Nell, with its simple cover design, was a hilarious read with a comprehensive understanding of the needs of the elderly within society. All the stories by this author would make wonderful movies in the ilk of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
by Joanna Nell