It takes remarkable skill to write well about the very old. Constrained by the inevitability of time running out for the character, and limited also by the realities of decline, an author not only has to resist being mawkish or sentimental, but also has to work credibly with how the surrounding characters behave towards the elderly. The fiction I’ve read has revealed a horrid truth: that old age tends to bring out the worst in the people around them…
In Love without Hope, Rodney Hall showed us Mrs Shoddy being patronised by people who should have known better: they carelessly consigned her to a mental hospital with undiagnosed depression. In The Trout Opera, Matthew Condon brought us the exploitation of centenarian Wilfred Lampe by the shallow-minded Sydney Olympic Committee. Both these characters thwart their fate through their own indomitable will but it’s a near thing.
Essential to the success of a novel featuring a very old central character is a strong personality, and this is especially so when exploring the fraught territory of family relationships and an unedifying quest for inheritance. Elizabeth Hunter, in Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm is physically frail but as sharp and malevolent as ever, and in this comic novel There Should Be More Dancing, Rosalie Ham has created an equally memorable character in Margery Blandon, surrounding her with other old ladies ageing along with their houses in the street. Each of these ladies defies easy assumptions and each keeps her secrets close. There is Life of the Party Pat, now losing her marbles but privy to a scandal kept from Margery for a lifetime; quiet Mrs Parsons who signals daily that she’s still alive by raising her blinds but has never shared her personal tragedy with Margery, and Florence (Flossie) who is still ‘a looker’ in her old age despite her booze and ciggies. She plays a pivotal role in the story.
As we saw in the much-loved The Dressmaker* Ham is a master at depicting quirky characters, and Margery’s milieu in Gold St Brunswick are a weird and wonderful crowd. Margery, who narrates every other chapter, begins the story on the top floor of a city hotel from which she plans to hurl herself rather than submit to other people’s plans for her remaining years. She has spent a lifetime stoically Doing The Right Thing in Gold Street, and now her horrid daughter Judith wants the house sold so that her equally horrid husband can invest in a nursing home (with a ‘lovely’ room for Margery). Her son Walter, who’s ‘a screw short of the full Meccano set’ after a TKO in his last boxing match but has nonetheless been her loyal ally, is suddenly besotted by Anita the carer, who is herself looking for somewhere to offload her elderly mother. Margery’s other son Morris – mysteriously in Thailand for a very long time – is no help at all.
Margery knows the fate that lies in store. She plays the piano at the local Home because Tyson, a resentful thug from the other side of the road, bombards her roof should she try to play at home. Notwithstanding Tyson, Margey’s fear of losing her independence and her attachment to her own familiar home transcend decades of hostilities with, Pat, such that she finds herself torn between conspiring with Pat to thwart the inevitable and being only too glad to see the back of her.
Despite her worries, Margery is at more-or-less at peace with the limitations of her present life, but not with her past. From her hotel room she thinks back over the years in resentment, confusion, and dismay as she begins to realise that ‘the worms don’t care what you’ve done‘. She has spent her life polishing Walter’s trophies and cross-stitching homilies but Doing the Right Thing has blinkered her from reality. Her little routines with Walter and old Mrs Parsons next door are no substitute for real conversation at all.
There Should Be More Dancing was the choice of the ANZ LitLovers online reading group for December. It was a great choice for discussion because the theme is so relevant to the ‘sandwich’ generation, that demographic who find themselves still caring for children living at home while also finding themselves with responsibility for an ageing parent.
* Still in print and so is Summer at Mount Hope
Author: Rosalie Ham
Title: There Should Be More Dancing
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2011
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings Bookstore