The Borrowed Life of Frederick Fife by Anna Johnston

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The alliterative title of this debut novel gives some indication of its nature – a tender, heartwarming and whimsical look at the borrowed life of Frederick Fife.  But what does ‘borrowed life’ mean?  Well, that is the theme of the novel.

The setting up of the situation takes a little time.  Frederick [or Fred] – still grieving the loss of his wife Dawn ten years previously – is now homeless as his landlord has terminated his lease due to non-payment of rent.  Bereft and lonely, Fred walks to the Wattle River Reserve where he finds a man about his age, and looking remarkably like Fred, slumped in a wheelchair near the river.  Never one to miss an opportunity to meet new people, Fred approaches the man but realises quickly that he is dead.  Hearing voices nearby, Fred attempts to wheel the chair towards them for some assistance.  But the wheelchair tips sideways depositing the man in the river and the body is swiftly borne away by the current.

Fred soon discovers that the man was from the local nursing home and the staff had momentarily overlooked where he gone.  Seeing an empty wheelchair and Fred looking panicked and distraught, the staff member [whom we later learn is Denise] assumes he is the missing man and bundles him back into the chair and gets him on the bus and back to the Wattle River Nursing Home.  Denise presumes Fred’s attempts at explaining who he is and what has happened to be a manifestation of his supposed dementia; and suddenly, he is Bernard Greer.  And this introduces one of the more serious themes of the novel: the selective hearing exhibited by some people when dealing with older people who may or may not have dementia.  This theme runs through the narrative but is offset by some staff – most notably Kevin and Linh – who interact with Fred/Bernard and other residents with dignity and respect.

As would be expected, when you take on someone’s name – even if unintentionally – you also take on their personal baggage.  Bernard has some complex baggage and it is up to Fred to sort it all out which he does with a great deal of kindness and perseverance.   There are a number of heart-warming vignettes through the narrative where Fred demonstrates his caring for others – his friendship with Albert who is deeply immersed in dementia; his matchmaking with Kevin and Linh; his slowly developing friendship with Hannah – Bernard’s estranged daughter; and Denise – the staff member who suspects that Fred may not be Bernard after all.

But, as in all the best stories, truth will out.  But instead of turning everyone against Fred and his unwilling deceptions, he finds that truth has brought with it liberation and relief from the pretence of being someone else.

The more heart-wrenching moments are leavened by the author’s rather earthy sense of humour where accidental bodily functions almost take centre-stage.  Fred in particular seems to have an inability to control his flatulence which certainly would bring much laughter from a certain age-group of boys.  But even if we are not of that age or gender, we can appreciate the humour especially when it is in juxtaposition with more serious events.

There is though a more serious aspect to this novel as the author has drawn from her own personal and professional experience in crafting it.  Her grandfather – Fred – suffered from dementia; and she worked as a social support coordinator in the nursing home where he was a resident.  This dual experience has informed her novel and shines through in the expression of understanding and sensitivity for the fictional residents of Wattle River Nursing Home.

The Borrowed Life of Frederick Fife is a novel which can be enjoyed on a number of levels – there are moments of heart-ache but the kindness of Fred and his care for others shines through.


The Borrowed Life of Frederick Fife


by Anna Johnston

Michael Joseph

ISBN 978 176134 759 7

$34.99; 360pp


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