A card in a shop window — ‘non-unionised, auxiliary nurses sought… 35p per hour. Ideal for outgoing compassionate females’ — plunges 15-year-old Lizzie Vogel into the turmoil of Paradise Lodge, a local old people’s home:
I didn’t want another year of trying to cheat the vending machine, relying on handouts and lifts and third-hand information, medicated shampoo, sugar sandwiches and scrounging cigarettes, babysitting for neighbours just to steal a pot of jam or some good quality teabags.
Paradise Lodge is a chaos of commode alerts, unpaid bills and looming catastrophe, run by a bunch of amiable eccentrics — depressed owner, mad matron, variously unqualified staff, plus the son of the local Chinese takeaway owner. More-over, its future is threatened by a new, glitzy nursing home that is syphoning off patients.
Lizzie becomes increasingly dedicated to her clandestine job, drawn into the inmates’ lives. Next to the larder is the home’s morgue, and the clever, mixed-up schoolgirl learns to deal with life and death in tandem. Seething with teenage angst, more damaged than she admits to, she defiantly bunks off school, risking shameful relegation to the dead-end stream ‘for the less academic’.
After Nina Stibbe’s prize-winning memoir of au-pairing in literary north London, her debut novel, Man at the Helm, captivated critics and readers with its picture of a dysfunctional family, seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Lizzie. Funny, beguiling, but with some dark stuff beneath the surface, that story had a happy ending, but every ending is followed by a beginning, and now Lizzie’s life — at home and at school — is falling apart. A touch of Holden Caulfield in 1970s Leicestershire.
Paradise Lodge lacks the aching comic madness of its predecessor, and the revelation of Lizzie’s unique personality. There’s less of her scatty mother and siblings here, but we still have the pleasure of her very individual voice — rude, sweary and deadpan.
It’s all very 1977, and Stibbe sprays the pages with the brand names of the day like an enthusiastic housewife wielding a can of Haze: Bronnley lemon soap-on-a-rope, Stergene washing liquid, Amami setting lotion. Stibbe captures the innocence of a past time with generosity of heart, and the old people are viewed with an unsentimental but affectionate eye. Her characters occupy their space like dust motes dancing in a sunbeam of nostalgia. The finale is appropriately over the top: a wild combination of open day, wedding celebration and some satisfying revelations, not least for Lizzie.
I wouldn’t mind fetching up at Paradise Lodge when my time comes: at least we’d all share a laugh, a hug and a terrible cup of tea before the dying of the light.