That "Barfoot is both harrowing and hilarious" (Independent on Sunday, UK) is a clue that as seniors begin settling into the spiffy new Idyll Inn, they won’t necessarily have in mind settling down. Four of them form their own little group dedicated, among other things, to small acts of pleasurable rebellion, not least the consumption of decent wines. Their spouses are dead or beyond recall. In their pasts they've had a few connections, both faint and bold, with each other - even tiny, kindly Ruth has some gossamer ties to her new companions. And now she has hopes of recruiting them for an act that is to be the most significant collaboration in their hitherto law-abiding lives - one that needs undertaking in the, er, dead of night.
Exit Lines weaves deliciously dark comedy into the most serious subjects humans can deal with: mercy and cruelty, faith and friendship, limits and loyalties - not to mention death itself...
Joan Barfoot's sly, sardonic new novel is a tautly paced ensemble piece shot through with pathos, poignancy and insights about aging
ELAINE KALMAN NAVES
If you're a baby boomer - a member of that brashly dominant demographic whose preoccupations have defined the post-Second-World-War era - you probably either have a parent in a seniors' residence or one contemplating such a move. Perish the thought, you might even be entertaining the notion of facing such a decision down the road yourself. You are the target audience of Joan Barfoot's new novel Exit Lines. As she notes of a middle-age individual escorting an older relative to one of these "genteel open-doored prison(s)," "Did that suited man not feel, coming through the automatic doors... the breeze of his own future entrance?"
Born in 1946, Barfoot is in the vanguard of the boomer generation, whose members are now between their late 40s and early 60s. The London, Ont.-based author of 10 previous critically acclaimed books, she has been nominated for both Giller and Booker prizes. This new novel will further enhance her reputation as an intelligent, stylish and original writer.
Exit Lines is set in a brand new retirement home in an unnamed North American town of 40,000. The Idyll Inn is the latest addition to a small chain of such institutions, owned by a collective of professionals, "mostly dentists and doctors, interested in untroublesome, steady investment in what's bound to be a growth industry."
Constructed in haste but cosmetically attractive, the residence is managed by a local woman who must ensure that residents are reasonably content and that the money keeps rolling in. "The Idyll Inn is rather like a Brazilian mine or a sweatshop in China that way."
Biting, sly, sardonic, are the adjectives that best describe Barfoot's voice. But Exit Lines is far more than a darkly funny and clever exercise about the plight of the elderly. It is a fine, tautly paced ensemble piece about four flawed, deeply human characters who find friendship through sheer necessity and then, against all expectations in what would seem to be a dead-end place, are drawn into a nail-biting drama.
Sylvia Lodge, the icy, patrician widow of a wealthy lawyer, is either a bully or a natural leader - it's hard at first to decide.
Crippling rheumatoid arthritis has forced her into the Idyll Inn. Greta Bauer, a German immigrant with a bad heart, would never be able to afford a place as classy as this but for the generosity of the three adult daughters whom she raised alone. Childless Ruth Friedman, at 74 the baby of the quartet, is a retired social worker who lost her beloved husband a year earlier and whose brittle bones have robbed her of her independence. And then there's poor George Hammond, brought pathetically low by a stroke. His demented wife is in a nursing home across town and his daughter, Colette, half a continent away. Paralyzed on one side, grieving and befuddled, he can muster speech only in unreliable spurts.
Each of them harbours an important secret, and this being such a small city, many lines of connectedness run between them and other residents and staff. Past betrayals, infidelities and moral failures underline the "deep, unrecognizable pockets of mystery" in all of them. But the biggest surprise comes from Ruth, the one who has lived the most exemplary life. As a case worker for the Child Welfare Agency, Ruth has been the indomitable champion of abused and neglected children. A dutiful daughter and a loving wife, she appears to be the most emotionally balanced of the group. And yet she makes an outrageous request of the other three. She wants out of life and expects them to speed her on her way. As George muses to himself, "you'd never know from looking at the smiley, curled-up little thing what a dark-seeing woman she is."
Grief, pain and an acute awareness of both human depravity and the appalling environmental catastrophe that the planet faces have plunged Ruth into a vortex of emptiness from which she feels only death can release her. Her appeal to the others puts the onus on them to make a case for life. It also challenges them to examine their values and to look deeply within for guidance about what obligations friendship imposes.
Exit Lines is shot through with pathos, poignancy and insights about aging on virtually every page. With skill and sensitivity Barfoot brings a satirical novel of ideas about decline and mortality to a climax that is a paean to courage, a demonstration of possibility and a measure of victory over despair.
The Toronto Star
A new nursing home welcomes residents who bring their own secrets and notions of living
If Joan Barfoot is tired of playing bridesmaid to her fellow writers – she has been short- and long-listed for the Giller and Man Booker prizes, among others – then at least with this, her 11th novel, she can claim a patent to her own unique genre of writing.
Let's call it the death comedy, by way of antidote to the generally cutesy narrative form known as the romantic comedy. In Barfoot's hands, it is a portal to some very lively, acerbic and at times deeply moving writing.
Where 2005's Giller-nominated Luck used death as a springboard for the Barfootian unravelling of its characters' pasts, here the point of entry is more insidious. The setting is a newly built retirement "lodge," the Idyll Inn, whose name has a potential for irony that is initially unproven, but safely assumed. At the very least it points to a state of innocence that we feel sure is not to be borne out by the actions of its characters, all of whom end up there as a result of the exercising, or not, of various levels of volition.
At one extreme is Sylvia Lodge, the lawyer's widow who arrives under her own considerable steam. Her faculties are still intact. She has, passive-aggressively, not told her middle-aged daughter about the move. The snubbing gives Sylvia a disturbingly sordid glee.
At the other end of the equation is George Hammond, the one-time owner of a well-known shoe store, who is brought in decidedly less willingly, post-stroke and wheelchair bound, by his own daughter, whose cajoling he bitterly rejects as a candy-coated form of parental abandonment. This despite the fact that he has rarely visited the nursing home where he has already parked his dementia-stricken wife, Alice.
Between these two are steadfast Greta, a German immigrant who worked at George's store after her husband died in a tragic work accident when her three girls were still small, and Ruth, a childless ex-Children's Aid worker whose own husband died of cancer some years back.
As the Idyll Inn is located in a small-sized city, connections between its residents are inevitable and, indeed, desirable as the source of much of the novel's delightfully dirty laundry. Greta, it seems, did more than simply restock shoes when she worked for George. Sylvia's memories of her own transgressions with her husband's law partner are kept fresh by the constant presence of her ex-lover's daughter, Annabel, now employed as the lodge's efficient but rather humourless manager.
The four main characters quickly form a friendship based on the wine in Sylvia's bar fridge, Ruth's readings of the day's dour headlines and their collective scepticism about the corporately prescribed good intentions of their new home.
But it is the otherwise stolid Ruth who unhinges the group when she asks for its help in executing a plan she has concocted to end her life. The proposal forces the other characters to assess the state of their own rapidly diminishing prospects, unleashing a torrent of the kind of black humour at which Barfoot excels.
In the final resolution to Ruth's "problem," however, Barfoot makes a couple of rare missteps by sliding uncomfortably toward the saccharine, although she struggles valiantly to keep her sardonic wit intact. It's as if she gets a bit too swept up in the moment, and forgets the current ban on sentimentality in fiction.
The moral quandary afflicting Ruth's friends is the plot's driving force but it is the stuff in between that are the novel's true and most valuable elements – the webs of human interconnectivity, the disloyalties, snippiness and, uniquely, the empowered appreciation of old age as the continuation of a life.
Exit Lines is another worthy Barfoot novel of disarming insight and complexity.
London Free Press/ Sun Media
Barfoot at her inventive best
It isn't surprising that London's Joan Barfoot has become an internationally recognized writer.
Barfoot's work is striking, combining as it does a keen eye for situation with a feeling for human motivation that is impossible to fault.
For years, she has produced fiction of a high order, was named to the Man Booker Prize long list in 2001, for her novel, Critical Injuries, and was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her last novel, Luck.
Once again, Barfoot commands our attention. In her new book, Exit Lines, she deals, deftly and with good-humoured raillery, with a clutch of rebellious seniors, ensconced in a retirement home. Few wish to be where they find themselves, but circumstance has trumped inclination. In a situation perhaps all too familiar in today's throwaway society, Barfoot's characters accept some unpleasant realities, while rejecting others.
Barfoot's clever, quick-paced chronicle centres on the Idyll Inn, the newest satellite in a small chain owned by a numbered company and run on behalf of doctors, dentists and other professionals "interested in untroublesome, steady investment in what's bound to be a growth industry." As the chain thrives, it is assumed it will become a takeover target for an even larger conglomerate.
The Idyll Inn is an expensive place to live. It boasts all the amenities, from large suites, sun decks, activities, entertainment, made-to-order birthday cakes and shuttle service into town. The food is bland, but so far newly installed residents haven't had time to complain. The dining room itself is the establishment's proudest feature, its bank of windows facing a river full of ducks, canoeists, anglers . . . and debris. Like themselves, some residents might feel.
The upscale residence, geared to prosperous clients, is managed by Annabel Walker, a local woman who left her small city at 20 but returned at 50 after valuable experience at a larger Idyll Inn.
She has interviewed prospective clients, checked their medical files and credit ratings, hired staff and has been responsible for furnishing and stocking the complex. "She is unencumbered and plain, and looks fairly worn down by the world, and at this stage is likely to remain unencumbered and plain, if not necessarily worn down, and so can presumably be counted on to concentrate on running this Idyll Inn."
As in most communal living, people form groups, flock together, pull apart, set up hierarchies. In a town of only 40,000, paths re-cross in the uncertain shambling of old age, fragments of past lives are remembered or set aside, as circumstance dictates. Residents scrutinize one another from oblique angles both of familiarity and of confusion. New relationships, mixed with old, could lead anywhere.
A small group of four begins to form around 81-year-old Sylvia Lodge, a stylish, brisk, energetic widow who has checked herself, without her daughter's advice and after a disastrous fall, into a suite on the Inn's main floor. Next time she falls, she thinks, there will be someone to pick her up. "These are the trade-offs of moving to a place like this. The trick is never to trade too much, or too swiftly. This will be fine. Fine enough. It only takes getting used to, and a little time to get settled. It'll remain a shock for a while, being incarcerated even in this genteel, open-doored prison."
Sylvia's confidantes include Greta Bauer, whose three successful daughters pay her upkeep at the Idyll Inn, George Hammond, once a prominent merchant, now in a wheelchair after a stroke, and Ruth Friedman, a tiny, strong-willed woman who uses a walker, not of necessity but as a comfort. Ruth's loneliness hides a secret agenda and before long she involves her new-found companions in a macabre scheme which challenges both their ingenuity and their sense of what friendship might really entail.
Barfoot's novel is both rich and ruminative. As her characters contemplate their pasts and consider present realities, they stumble upon the truths they must live by. To rue the past is to court defeat, although reasons for past mistakes may abound. "In the end, however, it is unimportant whatever are the causes of mistakes and regrets. What remain are the mistakes and regrets, just themselves."
As Sylvia laments her testy relationship with her daughter, she is ill-equipped to make amends. Greta and George stifle memories of their long ago love affair, while Ruth remains haunted by a hidden sorrow. She has no wish to "decline" past her 75th birthday, an event close at hand and one she deems a "reasonably bright" time to depart. "So I want to grab the moment while I'm right between what's worthwhile and what's not."
Exit Lines looks, with acerbity, at the indifference of the young toward the plight of the old, of the old themselves as survivors rather than as "bone-deep frightened," at the sense of schadenfreude with which people view the misfortunes of others, of the nature of memory, of parents and children, roles reversed, the way ahead obscured. And it treats, too, of the chill of death itself, which can happen "in sly, sliding, possibly merciful ways more often than people think."
Most of all, Barfoot's engaging novel is about the nature of friendship, its limitations and its possibilities. Companions gained late in life, Ruth thinks, have not been present at life-altering events. "They must take each other only on grounds of what is recounted, and then how they feel the balance and fit. Here at the Idyll Inn people see each other, as best they can, without ghosts."
As always, Barfoot's work is sparkling and inventive, full of penetrating wit, sharp observation and touches of compassion which are moving, yet unsentimental. Her new novel resounds with emotional truth, its characters caught in the prisons of their individual fates, but able, too, to devise their own escapes.
Exit Lines is more fine fiction from a gifted writer always one step ahead of the reader.
New lease on life
Prickly seniors sparkle and plot at a retirement home
E.M. Forster noted how "death ends a novel neatly" in his classic primer on fiction, Aspects of the Novel. However, in Joan Barfoot's recent fiction, it's the reverse. She opened with a death in Getting Over Edgar and Luck, and with a near-death experience in Critical Injuries.
It's their near-death health crises and the deaths of their spouses that bring Sylvia Lodge, George Hammond, Greta Bauer and Ruth Friedman -- like it or not, mostly not -- to reside in a retirement home, Idyll Inn, in Barfoot's 11th novel, Exit Lines.
In one of the many peppery aphoristic asides that delectably spice Barfoot's prose, Idyll Inn is for seniors "with healthy incomes but varying hopes, despairs, abilities and deformities."
The novel is set in an unnamed small city with similarities to London, Ont., where Barfoot, who has been honoured with the Marian Engel Award for her body of work and nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Luck, has lived for more than two decades.
For the characters peopling her fiction, the death of a near one and a brush with mortality is an end and a beginning -- the end of a way of life and a point of departure for the beginning of another, possibly more satisfying, one.
Grim reaper in novelist's guise though she may be, Barfoot's domestic comedies, though dark, are never grim. Her defiant vision and the spark and bite of her shapely prose buoy the spirit.
Here, as in her last few novels, Barfoot employs a Victorian-style omniscient narrator as a tart, knowing guide and commentator who weaves us dexterously in and out of the points of view of her four main characters as she teases out their pasts.
Hobbled by severe arthritis and fearing a fall with no one there to help her up now that her husband has died, Sylvia Lodge reluctantly moves to Idyll Inn.
Manager Annabel Walker, a Nurse-Ratched-in-training, is no match for prickly, formidable Sylvia.
In quicker order than she would have anticipated or hoped, she becomes close friends with George Hammond, who is recovering from a stroke; with Ruth Friedman, a former Children's Aid worker whose beloved husband recently died; and with Greta Bauer, the envy of the others, for only she has loving, caring middle-aged children.
Sylvia, not surprisingly, has a testy relationship with her daughter. George, a devoted father to his daughter, receives back not devotion but dutiful attention, and not much of that.
Ruth chose not to have children. Despite her milder aspect, she shows herself to be as flinty as Sylvia and as skilled at wielding zingers when necessary.
She "appreciates Greta's steadfastness, and Sylvia's bold, bitter laughter in the face of what they're all up against. And she likes, not George's occasionally excessive sentimentality . . . but the solid banister of angry stubbornness . . . that he hangs on to."
So will readers, whose affection for them all will grow stronger as the story unfolds. You feel like the fifth member of their tightly bonded group.
Gradually, they reveal their lives, sharing some secrets, regrets and betrayals with the bittersweet hindsight of "If only I knew then what I know now," while keeping others firmly to themselves.
The narrative has a dual time frame. It traces the evolution of the seniors' friendships during their first year at Idyll Inn. This is intercut with a pseudo-suspenseful present-day evocation of their conspiratorial creeping about the inn at three o'clock in the morning.
What they've planned is the plot's flimsy, questionable, just plain hard-to-buy-into hook, likely to be scoped out by many a reader thanks to the flap-copy tease and the circumstances before it is exposed at mid-point. Its resolution is equally strained.
Old age, as Barfoot so acutely chronicles in this fine, fine novel, is not just the age of diminishments and subtractions but also of unexpected additions -- most of all, the pleasure of the enriching company of new friends.
Life (and death) in a retirement home
Joan Barfoot paints aging group of characters compellingly
This novel revolves around three women and one man who live together. For fans of Joan Barfoot, that description may sound oddly reminiscent of her last novel, Luck, a character-driven tour de force about, well, three women and one man who live together in a small town.
In Exit Lines, the 11th novel from this acclaimed London, Ont., author, the quartet in question are all seniors living in the Idyll Inn, a new assisted-living residence in a small city. Sylvia, Ruth, Greta and George, all being of the same generation and all having lived for decades in the unnamed city, have several interconnections, some much closer than others.
Sylvia is a lawyer's widow, a sophisticated and smart woman who wielded a mean cocktail at the parties of her day, raised a daughter with whom she now enjoys a strained relationship, and keeps a stash of fine wines in the unauthorized fridge in her apartment at the Idyll Inn.
Greta is a German immigrant who was widowed young and left with three young daughters to raise. She was a hard worker in retail, first at a shoe store owned by fellow Idyll Inn resident George and later at a pharmacy. Now she's learning to knit and avoiding too much excitement to prevent damage to her weak heart.
Ruth was a social worker, dealing often with deprived or abused children and dysfunctional families. She is a widow and childless. She has a peculiar habit of reading horrifically depressing newspaper stories to her friends in the home.
George has had a stroke and is deeply angry that he is now fairly helpless in a wheelchair, unable to communicate and shunted aside by the daughter who put him in the home. The three women have gathered him in to their little rebellious clique and have made his physical rehabilitation something of a mission.
The four have secrets to keep and regrets they feel keenly as they get closer to the final acts of their lives. And Ruth has a hidden agenda that depends on her three friends buying into a life-altering scheme.
With four old people in a claustrophobic setting, Barfoot sets out to explore the big questions. A pretty accurate tag line on the book jacket describes it as "a darkly comic novel about everything that matters, from sex to death." Death in the environs of the Idyll Inn is a quiet, middle-of-night whisk out the door.
But while the staff of the residence strive to keep everything quiet and calm, the most profound of struggles with mortality is underway. Barfoot also addresses a few of the middle-sized questions crucial to aging. The three women are all ferociously intelligent but are often treated with irritating condescension by staff and administrators.
There's a fine wisdom at work in this novel, often spoken through the dialogue of the acerbic Sylvia. And there's a feel of authenticity as well. These people are so well drawn that Barfoot's setup for a major ethical dilemma seems possible and wrenching.
While Luck, a finalist for the 2005 Giller Prize, counted on a twisting and complex plot of coincidences, Exit Lines is far more spare. But it still displays Barfoot's wry wit and deft take on spoken, and unspoken, relationships.
The Times of London
It should be depressing, but it's funny and uplifting. Four people find themselves at the Idyll Inn, a bland retirement home. There's posh, subversive Sylvia, angry stroke-victim George, his old girlfriend Greta, and frail Ruth. The four of them join forces and enjoy midnight feasts of smuggled wine and confessions, but Ruth has a special favour - the ultimate one - to ask of them. Barfoot writes brilliantly about the cruelty of old age and infirmity, and the toughness of people who choose not to surrender. The Third-Agers are fighting back.
The rage of the aged: a haunting, disturbing tale of growing old disgracefully
For those of us in middle age, with ageing parents, the Canadian author Joan Barfoot's latest novel picks at a raw nerve. The Idyll Inn, a spanking new sheltered housing scheme with a river in a mid-sized Canadian city, is anything but what its name implies. A handful of elderly residents, all made vulnerable by age and illness, have fetched up here to live out their last days in peace and comfort.
Nothing in Barfoot's fictional world is as it seems. Sylvia, George, Greta and Ruth may be ailing, but they are raging against the dying of the light. They form an alliance, downing early-evening glasses of chardonnay to the consternation of the administrator. They eschew crafts classes, handle the students "assigned" to interview them for school projects with wry comments, and refuse to be patronised.
The younger generation's anguish over their parents' care is genuine. But it's hard not to wince with recognition over that dilemma, told from the ageing parents' perspective, of the offspring who consider them a problem. George, a former shoe-shop owner now bound to a wheelchair by a stroke, can read between the lines when his daughter Clare buys his shaving cream and shirts in bulk: she isn't planning on visiting very often. Patrician Sylvia, the widow of a local lawyer, wars openly with her daughter Nancy.
Greta, who raised three daughters after her husband died, is also George's former lover. Glimpses into their past are eloquent reminders that the gap between their passionate affair and current confinement seems frighteningly brief. The three are bound together by Ruth, another widow who divulges a terrible secret about her past and makes a shocking request of her friends.
This is powerful stuff. Barfoot movingly explores the awful territory not only of death but of the loss that inevitably precedes it. She reminds us sharply how easily the elderly are robbed of their dignity and autonomy. As Sylvia says: "I'm more than furious that almost every damn thing that matters in this world is out of my hands"...this is a poignant read that unsettles, haunts and disturbs with the best literary sensibility.
The Winnipeg Free Press
Next time you visit a seniors home, remember that not everything may be what it seems.
In her 11th novel, Ontario writer Joan Barfoot explores what lies beneath the surface in the intersecting lives of four senior citizens who meet shortly after moving into the newly completed Idyll Inn.
The author of Giller finalist Luck, Getting Over Edgar and Dancing in the Dark promises a "darkly comic novel about everything that matters, from sex to death."
And through four characters, she delivers even more, dishing up a few familiar tales of deceit and affairs, along with a surprise or two.
There's prim and proper Sylvia Lodge, who orchestrates her move from her house to the home in a precise fashion, just as she ordered her long, upper-middle-class life of volunteer boards and country club events.
Her across-the-hall neighbour is former shoe salesman George Hammond, who despite being wheelchair-bound from a recent stroke, has more in common with Sylvia than she can imagine.
George has a secret history with Greta Bauer, the German-born and long-widowed mother of three daughters who once worked in his shoe store. Her daughters' generosity allows Greta to move into Idyll Inn after a heart attack leaves her unable to care for her own home.
Then there's Ruth Friedman, a former social worker now crippled by arthritis, who has a few dark secrets of her own.
Over afternoon drinks (much to the dismay of Idyll Inn's well-intentioned, rule-bound manager, Annabel Walker), the unlikely quartet eschews scheduled outings and activities, and instead turn their intentions to how to carry out an unexpected request by Ruth.
She wants to die on her own terms, on her 75th birthday, going out into that dark night before she can no longer decide, but her hands are too disfigured to do it alone.
So she asks her new friends to speed her on her way, just as she did for her cancer-ridden husband Bernard a few years before.
Ruth's request leaves the others temporarily speechless, and with a few existential questions of their own. As they deal with those, they puzzle out how they might grant Ruth's wish, using their experience, resourcefulness, and collection of ordinary items such as plastic dry-cleaning bags, duct tape and scissors.
As Ruth's birthday creeps closer, the plan is solidified, and the thought of an imminent death forces the residents to reveal more of themselves to each other, confessing long-secret affairs (Greta and George, and Sylvia and Peter Walker, father of Annabel) undertaken in the seedy ABC Motel, and they begin to understand their lives in a new way.
Barfoot's promise of dark comedy is fulfilled in heart-wrenching ways familiar to families dealing with elderly parents in care. When George falls out of his wheelchair, he decides not to push the call button, but instead waits for help from his friends because he's afraid the neediness that put him into Idyll Inn will get him on the fast track to a personal-care home.
And when Ruth is interviewed by a bored teenager on a school history assignment, her stories of a life well lived are ignored by the girl, who isn't interested in anything more than what's required for her homework.
Barfoot's skilful depiction of the personalities, character flaws and struggles of people living their twilight years in the company of others makes this novel a must-read for anyone who plans to get old or doesn't plan to, but gets there anyway.
Idyll Inn isn't a place for cowards, and Barfoot tells stories of her characters' bravery and strength in a fun, engaging and compelling way.
And the exit lines aren't what you might expect either. Barfoot mixes in equal measures of suspense, surprises and drama as she wraps up her story about four ordinary but remarkable senior citizens.
The Herald (Scotland)
Old age and death, in modern fiction, tend to be a sideshow, a distressing but ultimately incidental counterpoint to the main story. Canadian novelist Joan Barfoot puts them centre stage. In so doing she flouts almost every convention: placing her story in the hands of a bunch of gnarled and stroke-ridden characters and making them, and us, look death right in the eye. The title suggests that Exit Lines is an exercise in bleakness, and some of it undoubtedly is, but it is also darkly funny, and for all its startling directness, proves a surprisingly uplifting novel from one of Canada's most sardonic but sympathetic observers of human nature...
...Thus the scene is set for a gloriously subversive piece of fiction. Barfoot's tone is beautifully judged throughout, combining tight authorial control with the seemingly effortless unreeling of individual stories and an increasingly powerful, and tender, group dynamic. As she knits the previous and present lives of this mismatched group together, she captures the constant replay and rewind of the older mind, as memories reach out to trip up the present day, and no hour passes without a brief visitation from the past. Her foursome are beguiling: never less than individuals, never simply old folk. Barfoot's humorous touch endows them with the wit and intelligence they have brought to their lives so far and with which they face their most difficult role yet: encroaching age.
In the countdown to Ruth's self-appointed hour of demise, the friends struggle to evaluate what an individual life is about, what makes it worth living, and how much control each of us should wield over our own fates. Philosophy and morality, character and motive create an absorbing plot. Already well-known for her acute and unsentimental fiction, Barfoot has ventured into treacherous territory here, daring to grasp one of the unspeakable dilemmas of modern life: the individual's right to die. It couldn't be more topical, yet Exit Lines is not a novel about issues, but about people...She carries off a dangerously charged scenario with impressive panache and grace. As do her indelible characters.
Globe and Mail
The old have a right to be querulous. The population segment growing faster than any other, they are nevertheless sidelined and shunned, their future a nebulous but limited horison. This latest novel from veteran Canadian author Joan Barfoot, keenly aware of the potential narrative friction of human infirmity, employs old age as its pivot.
Exit Lines is set in that most euphemistic of places, a "retirement home" called the Idyll Inn, one of a small chain of such facilities meant to serve as a good investment for a far-sighted few who can see the writing on the wall. The future will need places for the old to come to their end, will be desperate for collection spots for old people no longer able to care for themselves but not so infirm as to need round-the-clock medical care. And so, this holding tank becomes the place where those needing "a little help getting along" gather at the far edge of life.
The four characters that the novel explores are as different as is possible in a lodge in a small city of remarkably narrow demographic. They share, though, a resilient wish to remain in control of their own choices, however much those choices have narrowed....
The four form an accidental and rather uneasy alliance at first, but as they grow accustomed to the routine of the lodge, they begin to rely on one another's company. Together, they enjoy Sylvia's hospitable glasses of wine and trade some details of their lives, lives that never anticipated their ending up in such a spot, such a "genteel, open-doored prison." Despite their status as residents in a home rather than patients in a care facility, they know the limitations facing their foreshortened lives.
Unsurprisingly for the unfolding secrets at the heart of the novel, they have met one another before, in different capacities. Some of their earlier history is merey awkward, some downright uncomfortable. Now they must realign themselves in this new relationship, which slowly becomes a version of habit, if not quite unstinting friendship. Most of all, they are brought together by their allegiance in the face of outside interference. As Sylvia observes, "it's rather useful to know we can look out for each other. I'm all in favour of not letting our guard down with authority. Staff."
But looking after one another is brought to a head by Ruth, who, fearful of the kind of awful death her husband suffered, wants to choose the time and method of her own demise. She attempts to enlist her friends in her plan, and the crux of the novel is how each one, in contemplating Ruth's "exit line," must face how the future throws their present and their past into sharp relief.
Joan Barfoot is masterful at evoking, with a few sharp, swift strokes, the lineaments of character. We come to know Greta and Ruth and George and Sylvia in precise and evocative detail, their histories unfolding as the novel unfolds, with delicious tactility. Barfoot's mordant wit is wonderful. Her play with language and metaphor is sharp and very funny, exemplified by the acerbic wit of the old "losing their marbles, little coloured glass balls rolling out of their brains."...
Taking on this subject is a courageous act for Barfoot, and the novel evokes well the rituals of a retirement "home," that world most of us merely visit. At its heart is a subtle exploration of the "useful camouflagings of age and its occasionally happy invisibilities, which is how it can keep secrets, and even some kinds of freedom"...
Eve magazine (U.K.)
...The four serniors who enter the Idyll Inn have no intention of going quietly. They hoard fine wines, flout the rules, and get up to unspeakable shenanigans in the middle of the night. Barfoot has a keen eye for the small dramas of everyday life and illustrates them with poignancy and wit The tangled, guilt-infused relationships between parents and children are sure to ring a bell. Read it if you love a perceptive and darkly funny read.
Dark and funny and dangerously nuanced, in Exit Lines (Knopf Canada) Joan Barfoot manages another notch on an already impressive double bandolier of high impact Canadian novels.
Four new guests a retirement home form a pact of “pleasurable rebellion.” The concept is funny and, on the surface of things, the approach is lighthearted. However, Barfoot deals here with topics most of us would much rather skate past: mortality, morality and a diminished twilight as a footnote to a vibrantly lived life.
Like her previous novel, the Giller-finalist Luck, Barfoot captures humanity in a way that both resonates and makes one wonder at a world slightly askew. Barfoot’s vision is always worth watching, and there’s no exception to that rule in sight in Exit Lines.