Category Archives: Older women in fiction

Not girls but WOMEN

A post to celebrate women. A new trend in titles began a few years ago when it became fashionable to include the word ‘girl’ in the title of novels, especially mystery or horror novels featuring young women and violence. We are in an age which makes a fetish of youth and devalues maturity, especially in women. I hate the patronising use of the word girl to refer to a young woman. In this themed post I celebrate ten titles that have claimed woman and celebrate maturity.

Of the ten books in this list, 9 are novels and one is an edited diary. They were all reviewed on Bookword and the links are included.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi (1975)

Translated from the Arabic by Sherif Hetata

Firdaus is awaiting execution for murder, having lived a life of exploitation by a series of men. It was an indictment of gender relations in Egypt at the time.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2016)

Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Keiko lives a very small life serving in a convenience store. Her family try to encourage her into a more normal life, which risks overwhelming her. This is a critique of the pressures to conform in Japan, which can make young women childlike.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013)

An angry woman lives on the upper floor of a house in Boston, USA. Is she a mad woman in the attic? Loneliness and betrayal are the themes of this novel.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

Mildred also lives above the action, in this case over a flat let to a rather stormy couple. She is a mature woman who understands that most people live with ‘the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies, the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction’.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

The prize-winning novel celebrates girls and women and never confuses the two. The lives of many women of colour are connected in this novel, mostly set in London. It was the best book I read in 2019.

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt (2015)

This is the title given to the diaries of Jean Pratt. She kept it for sixty-one years from 1925 carrying on through the war. She lived in Burnham Beeches, outside London and never married. The title explains her life.

Older Women in fiction series

Here are four titles from novels in the older women in fiction series. Of course these are about women in their 60s and over, and such subjects are not usually referred to as girls. I still think it is important to celebrate their titles. I notice that three of them are about Arabic women. None are from Europe or North America. I am not sure what that tells us, but perhaps only that there are different traditions in titles for novels.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (2016)

This is the story of a rivalry between two neighbours, Hortensia and Marion in Cape Town, South Africa and how they manage to argue and become reconciled. 

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour (2014)

Translated from the Arabic by Kay Heikkinen

The Palestinian diaspora is retold by an old woman, Ruqayya, who was born into a village taken over at the time of the Nakba. Family life must continue despite living in exile.

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail (2016)

Translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou

A mystical story with its origins in real events about an old woman who returns to her village in the military zone on the border of Iraq-Iran during their war. Her simple approach to life and her donkey inspire the soldiers.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (2013)

Set in war-ravaged Beirut a widow is determined to hold on to her apartment. She leads a secret life translating western literature into Arabic.

Over to you

Can you suggest more titles to add to this list?

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Women in Translation

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

Written more than 50 years ago, this novel addresses the loss of dignity and agency that came with advancing age at that time. Is it the same today? Are our older citizens treated with the same slight attention and dismissive attitudes? Mrs Gadny is our unwitting guide, admitted to the Jerusalem, a care home for women. She is unhappy and has begun to lose touch with the present time. She develops dementia while the other inmates look on.

This is the 50th in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books and reviews on my list here.

At the Jerusalem

Mrs Gadny is delivered to the Jerusalem by her step-son and his wife. This couple took her into their home, for seven weeks, after both her husband and her daughter had died. Those seven weeks were not successful as no one in the family had familiarity with or affection for Mrs Gadny. Sometimes grandchildren are seen as closer to the elderly, but these children are no more able to make the necessary adjustments than the adults. Thelma is monstrously selfish  and greedy and feels no obligation towards her husband’s step-mother, especially when it requires some sacrifices from her. What is the obligation of each generation to their parents? Today we are no nearer to a good answer to this dilemma. The section about the weeks that Mrs Gadny spends in her step-son’s home appears after we learn about her arrival and early unease at the Jerusalem. We can see that she is not comfortable here, but this section dissuades us from imagining that she was better off before. 

Mrs Gadny had been in service, and she knows how things should be done and what are the correct terms used by people of class. She is a bit of a snob, for example she hates Thelma’s use of the word ‘lounge’ for sitting room. And she knows what is good taste in a room’s décor – it is not floral wallpaper. Although many of the other residents of the Jerusalem have also been in service, Mrs Gadny finds them coarse or intrusive. She is also much more reserved than they are.

At Matron’s request Mrs Capes, who lets everyone know that she is above her fellow residents, tries to befriend the new arrival. Matron explains this arrangement to Mrs Gadny. 

‘Mrs Capes is what you’d call a “character”. She’s energetic, has a lively mind. You’ll take to her. She will amuse you, I can promise. […] I shall ask her to guide you round the Home: show you all the nooks, all the crannies. And she can introduce you to the other residents, describe their little ways.’ (8)

But in carrying out this task Mrs Capes manages to show her the worst aspects of the Home, even including the place where a former patient hanged herself with a lavatory chain. She also provides critical gossip about the other residents and recommends a spiritualist’s consultations. Mrs Gadny does not warm to her company and continues to feel isolated and unwanted. 

Eventually, despite the affectionate care of one of the nurses, she breaks down and has to be put in a room on her own and finally sent to an institution where they can care for an old woman with dementia. 

The older women

While Mrs Gadny lives both in the past and the present, for example she hears her daughter’s cough from time to time, and writes to a former neighbour who died some years before. Her fellow patients are also living reduced lives. They are an unlikeable lot: rather coarse, prone to airs, gossip and criticism. One constantly mislays her teeth, another says what everyone is thinking, another has raucous uncontrolled fits of laughter and so on. All of this behaviour is on show at the annual trip to Southend.

The staff, while kind, are unable to resist infantilising the residents. They call them patients. Even the food is like nursery food: jelly, junket, semolina. However, it is difficult to avoid seeing humour in the situations at the Jerusalem but it is not at the expense of the characters or at least it does not belittle them. For example, there is a 90th birthday party: it takes place in the dormitory where all nine women sleep and two of them remain all day. One of those has the birthday, and the celebration takes place round her bed. She has to be repeatedly nudged awake. The other bed-bound woman is fed birthday jelly from time to time.

Much of the narrative as well as the effect of this novel is conveyed through the direct speech which dominates the text. This is often very brief, and much of what is important is revealed by what is not said. In his introduction Colm Toibin praises Bailey’s ability to convey so much through speech. Here’s an example of the style:

A rumour had reached Mrs Gross’s ears. Had it reached Edie’s? Concerning a coloured nurse?
‘No.’
‘Nurse Percival told Maggy we might be getting one. She came to see Matron last evening.’
‘The nurse?’
‘What?’
‘He invented steam.’
‘Who did?’
‘Watt did.’
‘You’ve confused me.’
‘She come to see Matron, this nurse.’
‘Yes. What I gathered from Maggy is that she’s brown rather than coloured.’
‘Brown’s coloured, Nell.’
‘Not in my book. When I refer to someone being coloured, I mean black. Brown’s lighter than black.’
‘God help us!’
‘Take Daisy, that cleaner. The one who wears the trilby, she’s black. Maggy says this nurse isn’t a bit like her – no marks on her face. What I’m trying to tell you is Matron’s going to ask each of us in turn whether we approve. Of her looking after us.’
‘Oh.’
‘I don’t mind, do you?’ (164)

What care should be provided for older people? And how can care of people with dementia allow them dignity? As I suggested earlier, these questions are still with us today.

A note: In his introduction to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971) Paul Bailey noted that she had drawn on his habit of writing in Harrod’s banking hall to create the character of Ludo. Ludo was writing a book about elderly people called They Weren’t Allowed to Die There. She told him this after the publication of her book.

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey was originally published in 1967. It has been republished in 2020 by Head of Zeus with an introduction by Colm Toibin. 219pp

Simon had recently compared this book with Mrs Palfrey. He preferred the Elizabeth Taylor. Here is a review from Stuck in a Book from May 2017

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Manhattan – the last time I was there was in 1969. It was so unfamiliar to me when I picked up this novel that I had to relearn the names and order of the Avenues, and look up the position of some of the most famous landmarks. I also had to use a Google map to follow Lillian Boxfish’s path through the city. I am not surprised that Daunt Books published this, as a bookseller Daunt’s is associated with travel books and the novel is so strongly set in the city of New York. 

I remember New York as a lively city, full of excitement and strangeness. It was noisy and dirty and I imagined I would be back soon. This was my return. And it was such fun. Lillian Boxfish was an ideal walking companion, a flâneuse with class.

This is the 49th novel in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. You can find the complete list of reviews and suggested books in the series here.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

The book is set in 1984/5 beginning on New Year’s Eve. Finding herself alone on an evening which is typically celebrated in company, Lillian decides to take a walk. She has lived in Manhattan since 1921 and so now she walks first to her usual Italian restaurant, then to another in south Manhattan, then to a party in Chelsea and finally home. On the way she passes some landmarks of her life and we learn about her history.

The plot is tightly focused on Manhattan. Lillian does not stray further north than 42nd Street. The city has changed since she moved there in the 1920s: muggers, skyscrapers, the new World Trade Towers, loft conversions, Korean-run bodegas and so forth. We also get to reflect on how the city has continued to change since then.

Lillian Boxfish

Lillian is 84/5 and inspired by the real life Margaret Fishback. Like her inspiration,  Lillian has worked as a copywriter for Macy’s store, becoming rich and successful as a result of her poetic sales pitches. She also wrote books of guidance for young women and verse, often humorous, including for greetings cards when she lost her job at Macy’s. She was successful, she was well paid and had a lively social life. Unlike her contemporaries did not want to get married. But Lillian fell in love and married Max, and later became pregnant. 

Of course she lost her job when she became pregnant. This was the late 1930s. Her husband, being Italian-speaking, spent the war years away, and their lives were not the same on his return. They became less happy together and he was unfaithful. She descended into alcoholism, and an attempted suicide before being sent to a sanatorium and receiving electric shock treatment. 

By the time of this walk Max, her husband, had been dead for many years. His second wife is dying and her son Johnny lives with his own family away from the city in Maine. Her best friend also died a few years earlier. Her new friend is welcoming, but their shared interests are limited. She has no-one to share her New Year’s meal with.

Despite her isolation Lillian is a very sociable person, speaking to many strangers on her perambulation. She is also not your stereotypical elder, not scared of the city, even at night. When she meets a group of three muggers as she returns home, she stands up to them and a curious and successful bargain is struck. The incident reminds us of a conversation with her son early in the novel. He requested that she should not walk on the streets and reminded her about the Subway Vigilante who shot four young muggers when they asked him for five dollars. What if she had taken her grandsons on the subway? The people of New York are idolising him, she says.

‘I walk everywhere dearest,’ I say. And it’s true: I like the exercise, and the subway cars are graffitied with so much text it’s like being screamed at, like the voices inside my head and everyone else’s have manifested their yelling outside, ill-spelled with spray paint. ‘And we weren’t on that train. And he isn’t shooting elderly ladies and adorable tots.’
‘But guys like the guys he shot are everywhere. Hoods. Gangs. Toughs. Whatever you want to call them.’
‘I would not resist if young thugs approached me for money,’ I say. ‘I would acquiesce. I agree with Governor Cuomo that a vigilante spirit is dangerous. Rude, too.’
‘Rude?’ he says.
‘Yes Gian. Incivility is not incivility’s antidote. […] New Year is bigger than any mugger, the way it makes people feel. Being old is depressing. The Subway Vigilante is depressing. But I love it here, this big rotten apple. I’m near my old haunts, my sycamore trees, my trusty R.H. Macy’s.’ (11-12)

We can see she is a woman of considerable spirit, although her breakdown which we learn about half way through was so serious she needed shock treatment to recover. And we learn at the end of the book, she did not acquiesce to the muggers, but together they struck their own bargain. She’s a lively creature, who maintains her standards, especially of honesty and of engaging respectfully with others. 

The extract above also illustrates a feature of this book. The reader is given insight into her thoughts, which are often witty ripostes or reflections on the world as she sees it. We notice by this means the rich inner life she has cultivated for herself, that she has not been diminished by her experiences or by her age. She has loved many aspects of her life, and been as much in charge of it as she could be.  

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney published in 2017. UK publisher is Daunt Books. 277pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

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Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Travelling with books, Writing and Walking

In Dependence by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

#BlackLivesMatter has encouraged me to promote novels by women of colour on my blog and on twitter with more vigour. Wanting to highlight such books I looked through the 600 or so posts on Bookword and found fewer than I expected. There have been more in recent months. When I reviewed Girls, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo in June I included her list of recommendations on the Penguin site in March 2020

In Dependence appeared on that list. I was attracted to it because I had hugely enjoyed Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika and included it in Bookword’s older women in fiction series. The main character in that novel is an older woman from Nigeria, a professor of English Literature in San Francisco. She is a very attractive character, as flamboyant as the title, as she faces up to the social and physical consequences of a fall. You can read about that novel here

In Dependence

The story of In Dependence follows two friends who meet in 1963 at Oxford University. Nigeria has recently become independent. The politics of the time is allowing young people to control their destinies more, at least in Europe, and to feel more independent. In 1963 Tayo arrives in Oxford from Nigeria. He is handsome, intelligent but not naive or superior. He meets other African students, including Christine with whom he becomes enamoured. But they quarrel when he meets Vanessa, a white woman with ambitions to become a journalist in Africa. Tayo and Vanessa become lovers.

I was reminded of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel A Game of Hide and Seek, which also follows two people who were once in love and meet each other over the years, finding their lives cannot be entirely disentangled. Such long-term relationships cannot be easy for they involve changes in two people as well as the involvement of others.

The story unfolds over the years up until the end of the 20th century when Tayo receives an honorary degree from Oxford. In the meantime, Christine has committed suicide, Vanessa and Tayo split up when he got another (Nigerian) woman pregnant. He married her. Vanessa adopted a son in Senegal from a good friend who was killed, and later married an older man, a mutual Oxford acquaintance.

Tayo and Vanessa are apart but continue to think of each other. The book explores themes of extended and mixed families in the diaspora, how love does and doesn’t endure, changing Nigerian politics, dependence on children and partners and longstanding friendships. The implications of the title become clear, we are interdependent.

Sarah Ladipo Manyika

The author was born in 1968 and was raised in Nigeria. At one point in her life she taught English Literature in San Francisco State University. She has written two novels and several short stories as well as many articles. 

Also by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) from older women in fiction series in 2018.

In Dependence Sarah Ladipo Manyika, published in 2008 by Legend Press and more recently reissued by Cassava Republic Press. 271pp

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I am a great admirer of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction. This will be the fourth post on Bookword focusing on her books, and the fifth novel of hers that I have read. Some of my admiration comes from the characters she draws, especially older women, and the situations she creates for them. Some of it comes from her style of writing, especially her dialogue. And some from the format she has chosen for Olive: interlinked short stories. I know other readers find her work hugely enjoyable too.

This will also be the 48th in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. This book returns us to small towns in Maine, USA and to the character first introduced in 2008, Olive Kitteridge. 

Olive, Again

In the final episodes of the previous book Olive had recently been widowed and had met Jack – a Republican to her horror –  with whom she became friendly and ultimately intimate. Early on in this novel they are married. This collection of stories take us through the years of her second marriage and widowhood and into old age and its terrors.

We are shown small town East Coast American life, with its controlling gossip, unspoken standards and long memories. Change is also a feature. Mostly we are in Crosby but a nearby town, Shirley Falls, has been ‘overrun’ by ‘Somalians’, and the mills have closed and been demolished. Nothing is the same.

Many of the characters were taught Maths (Math) by Olive Kitteridge, and the image of her formed during this time endures. She was harsh, distant with occasional flashes of wisdom for her students. Teacher and students meet from time to time, the young people now adults, and some of them benefit from her observations about people’s suffering and her lapses into kindness. The distress of a young woman unable to choose butter in a supermarket is noticed by Olive, who helps her make her purchases, sees her home and visits when no one else does, for the woman is undergoing chemotherapy.

Memories are long-lasting. So is some damage. And Olive’s relationship with her adult son has never been good. They fell out badly when Olive went on a visit to New York to stay with his family, as revealed in Olive Kitteridge. Now he visits with his new wife and the visit again does not go well.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth. She had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. […] And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had cause this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? (91)

The reader is perhaps more observant than Olive. We see her clumsiness with people, her abruptness and her kindness. We see how she pushes people away, expects obedience from children, speaks truth rather than tact. And we see that people hold onto their images of her. She is intelligent rather than warm and does not conform to small town social regulation.

In some stories Olive makes only a small appearance, always in character but sometimes it feels too engineered. But the theme of class hierarchies and poverty continue through each story, as people learn to live with each other and the disappointments and catastrophes of their lives.

Ultimately Olive loses her second husband, the man who had loved her ‘Oliveness’. And she becomes old and even more lonely, has a heart attack and becomes dependent upon others.

At one point she meets Crosby’s own national poet in a coffee shop and because she is lonely Olive tells her about her life. (Later she find the conversation published as a poem in a magazine.) She tries to attract the waitress’s attention and then explains why being invisible can be liberating:

“It’s just that you don’t count anymore, and there is something freeing about that. […] I don’t think I can explain this well. But you go through life thinking you’re something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something. And then you see” – Olive shrugged in the direction of the girl who had served the coffee – “that you no longer are anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end, you’ve become invisible. And it’s freeing.” (204)

The format of the linked short stories allows Elizabeth Strout to show her protagonist both close up and at a distance. The interweaving of the characters’ lives and events reflect small town life. Everyone has their dilemmas and difficulties, and some have catastrophes that pile up in an almost comic way. Some characters even appear from other novels (Amy and Isabelle for example)

I was struck by the dialogue in this book. The story called Helped is largely a phone conversation of a bereaved young woman, Suzanne, who is just learning the full story of her family and the family lawyer. He is kind and a good listener and their conversation gradually peels back the pain Suzanne experienced within her family, and his own family origins in Hungary. The ‘beats’ in the long scene of the phone call are carefully and effectively timed, and we leave the conversation seeing that they have given each other something important and human.

The characters are authentic in their complexity. They have doubts, contradictions, regrets and some take bold leaps. The attraction of Olive is in her authenticity. She is a large woman, prone to dismissing people with a casual wave of her hand and to making judgements about them. But she also has insight and compassion for the lives of others. In the final pages she reflects on her own life and her approaching death. 

It was herself, she realised, that did not please her. (289)

She concludes in this way:

I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing. (289) 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, published in hardback by Viking, Penguin in 2019. The paperback is due out in November 2020. Thanks to Anne for the lend.

paperback version

Links to related reviews

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (on Bookword June 2016)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

JacquieWine’s review of Olive, Again appeared on her blog in November 2019.

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, short stories

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The generosity of book bloggers never ceases to move me. Since last August when I was guest blogger on Global Literature in Libraries looking at older women in fiction around the world I have had recommendations from many people. I really enjoy receiving these suggestions for the list and the series. Pam Giarrizzo went beyond recommending the book that is the subject of this post: she actually sent me a copy from California. Being so connected in the world shut down by Covid-19 was a great boost. There were further connections for me, as I will reveal. Thank you Pam.

This will be the 47th in the series championing fiction about older women in order to make them more visible. This book takes us to Guyana and was first published in 1986. It won the GLC Black Literature Competition in 1985. It is the first in this series from the Caribbean.

Frangipani House

Frangipani House is in Guyana, a large low house which had become a home for old women and where it sits ‘sleek and comfortable’ on the town’s edge. It is run by Olga Trask, known as Matron. 

A comely, honey-brown predator of a woman, short and crisp, with blue-grey eyes and a full head of coarse black hair. […] On admission the women placed everything in her care. (2) 

The story follows Mama King who is 69 and has been unwell for some time with malaria, quinsy and pleurisy. Her two daughters, Token and Cyclette, live in New York and decide to pay for her care at Frangipani House.

The residents are all women and none of them are happy, although some have lost the will to object to Matron’s regime. They adopt a number of strategies to deal with their situations: they sing, or die, or have a stroke, or fade away, or go mad. 

When Mama King’s pleading letters to her daughters go unanswered, she decides to run away. At first she is not found by Matron, but after a few weeks she ends up in hospital and Matron must answer to Mama King’s daughters for what has happened. And they must decide what should be done with her next.

Except it is Mama King’s decision in the end, which is as it should be, for the old woman has some strong opinions based on her experiences.

Through this short novel we see how different groups in Guyana regarded old people in the 1980s. There is the particular complication of the Guyanese diaspora, many family members can not be present to offer practical help and support. An important visit is made by Mama King’s grandson, Markey, who she cared for when he was small, and who is now in the US navy. In Guyana Mama King has a good friend in Grinchi who she has known from childhood. This friend has no children but a track record of helping those abandoned by their families. Issues of male violence, poor fathering, poor parenting and poverty all emerge in this satisfying novel. 

Beryl Gilroy

Beryl Gilroy (1924-2001) grew up in British Guiana, coming to Britain in 1951. She suffered discrimination but eventually became a primary headteacher in Camden at Beckford School (1969-1982), the first black headteacher in London.  She then went on to study and teach at the Institute of Education, part of the University of London. She wrote several more novels and including one based on her experiences as a teacher in London: Black Teacher (1976). Later, she became an ethno-psychotherapist.

In the tradition of Black women who write to come to terms with their trauma, or alternatively to understand the nature of their elemental oppression, I wrote to redefine myself and put the record straight. [From Leaves in the Wind]

She had to endure being ignored as both a woman and a black woman in her teaching and her writing careers.

And I find myself drawn to her educational biography as I too was a headteacher (of a secondary school) in north London, although twenty years after she took up her role. And I too moved on to the Institute of Education, and where her son Paul’s book, There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack (1989), was a key text in thinking about cultural aspects of education.

In terms of the visibility of older women, her novel reminds us of the need for dignity and consideration in the care of older citizens. It also lays to rest the myth of widespread care in the community of older people in other cultures. But she also draws attention to some of the additional difficulties for families who have migrated. And she reminds us of some pretty admirable older women in Guyana, in her portraya  of Muriel King and Miss Grinchi.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy, published in 1986 by Heinemann in the Caribbean Writer’s Series. 255pp. It is still available.

Here are some posts in the Older Women in Fiction series from outside the European tradition:

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashou

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

Here is another in the series of Older Women in fiction. This is the second novel in the series to have been written in Arabic. It is set beside the River Shatt-al-Arab during the long war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988). Why did the author explore the experiences of this old woman in this context?  Ismail Fahd Ismail was from Kuwait: and the novel was translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. It was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women in order to make them more visible. This will be the 46th in the series and the 8th to have been written by a man. This novel was suggested to me in August when I was guest blogger on Global Literature in Libraries, looking at older women around the world. Thanks to that reader and I’m sorry I did not keep a record of who recommended what.

The Old Woman and the River

An old woman Um Qasem, lives with her family in a village beside the river Shatt-al-Arab, near Basra in Iraq. It is 1980 and the long war with Iran has begun. The family have been ordered to uproot themselves as they are in a militarised area. On the journey her husband Bu Qasem dies suddenly and they have to bury him where he died and move on. The family resettle and put down roots in Najaf, but after a few years the old woman remains troubled by the abandoned body of her husband and decides to return home with it to Sabiliyat. 

She takes a donkey, the wonderfully named Good Omen with whom she has close understanding. Together they make the return journey, picking up her husband’s bones on the way. She returns to the abandoned village of Sabiliyat where she and the donkey take up residence, using the supplies from the houses. She is troubled by the damage done to the fields and gardens of the village because the rivers have been dammed.

A small group of soldiers is stationed on the banks of the river and although hostile at first they allow her to stay, initially, for the period of a ceasefire. They soon get used to her presence and gradually begin to help her with her projects, especially restoring irrigation channels which bring water to the gardens and cisterns of the village. They also help her to build her husband’s grave. She remains for many months, despite the danger of being killed when shelling resumes and of being sent out of the area by the military.

As in the previous novel, Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, an old woman is deployed as the protagonist of this novel because she represents everything that the clearances and war put into danger. Highlighting the experiences of one of the weakest of the population emphasises the inhumane actions of the strong and the aggressive. She reminds the readers, and the soldiers in this novel, of some of the quieter values of human life: nurturing, caring, providing sustenance, fostering nature, caring for animals and so forth. 

The Iraq–Iran War lasted from 1980-1988. 500,000 people were killed and no borders were changed as a result of the hostilities. The novel takes no sides in criticising the long war, but focuses on families and ordinary people. The soldiers too are revealed as individuals. The old woman, by valuing human relations, history and the bountiful gifts of the land and the river, restores some humanity to the village and the soldiers.

The old woman Um Qasem

It is not clear how old Um Qasem is. She and her husband had a good loving relationship and with their family had enjoyed their lives in the village of Sabiliyat. They had children and grandchildren who adapted to their new life in Nasraf. While she loves them all, she has her own life and decisions to make. She is not a frail and dependent old lady. In fact she shows great resourcefulness and courage in the face of the terrible war. And she reminds us too of the permanent pull of our roots.

Her effect on the soldiers is a bit mystical and Ismail Fahd Ismail did not wholly resist giving her special powers. Um Qasem dreams and hold conversations with her husband in her sleep which help her re-establish the water to the village. Her communication with the Donkey, Good Omen, is also from the realm of magic. She is a life-giving force. Indeed this novel has the feel of a folk tale to it. It is also based on real events.

I have noticed that Um Qasem has been likened to other literary figures such as Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote. However, Good Omen is a complete contrast to Modestine, Robert Louis Stevenson’s companion in the Cevennes. (See my post about their travels here.) 

Ismail Fahd Ismail

Ismail Fahd Ismail was a Kuwaiti writer, born and brought up in Sabiliyat, and he lived from 1940 to 2018. He wrote 27 novels and many short stories and is credited with founding the art of fiction in Kuwait.

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail, first published in 2016 and English version by Interlink Books in 2019. 176pp 

Translated from the Arabic by Sophia Vasalou. Shortlisted for International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2018

Here are some related posts in the Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour

And the previous post in the series was …

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith 

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith

It is unusual is to find a novel of historical fiction that features an older woman. And not many books in this series about older women have been written by men. Iain Crichton Smith locates this old woman at the start of the 18th century at the time of the Highland clearances in Scotland. Why did the author explore the experiences of this old woman in this context?

Many readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women. This will be the 45th in the series. This novel was suggested to me in August when I was guest blogger on Global Literatures, looking at older women around the world. Thanks to that reader and I’m sorry I did not keep a record of who recommended what.

Consider the Lilies

It is the time of the Highlands Clearances in the early 1800s. An old woman, Mrs Scott, is visited by the agent of the Duke. Patrick Sellar tells her that the Duke will be putting her out of her house. The land is to be used for sheep.

Mrs Scott is over 70, a widow. She lives on her own, looked after by the village, and a staunch church-goer. She has lived in the house all her life. She has no family to turn to as her son emigrated to Canada. What is she to do? 

She seeks advice from the village elder, who has nothing to offer. And then from the minister, who disgusts her by lying and counselling compliance with the Duke. On her return from her visit to the Manse she falls into a stream and is rescued by a radical family who care for her until she recovers. Mrs Scott revises her opinions of this family. Like all the villagers, the Macleods are also to lose their homes. The villagers will face the threat together.

Mrs Scott

Mrs Scott is an independent woman, with a great deal of pride. She believes in behaving correctly, according to the dictates of the church. In the first chapter, when she receives Patrick Sellar with highlander’s courtesy, it is clear that the old ways will not protect her against the threat this uncouth man presents. He sees her as stupid when she is being respectful.

Her life is governed by her strict adherence to religion, the Old Testament kind. In the past, we learn, this belief led her to care for her mother, suffering from dementia, without revealing the terrible demands to her neighbours. It also meant that her own son left for Canada. And although the villagers provide some help, this crisis reveals that she has no one to advise her. She is a woman of some resolution however and does not wait patiently for her fate.

She consults the church elder, who turns out to be more concerned for his own future and is weak in the face of this crisis. And she approaches the minister, a man to whom she has never before spoken. He lies to her, blames the sins of the villagers for this misfortune and recommends compliance with Patrick Sellar’s order.

It is this betrayal by the church that provides the turning point for Mrs Scott. She stumbles away from the Manse, but falls into a stream on the way home and is rescued and cared for by another villager, Donald MacLeod. Until this moment he has been everything she stands against, including an atheist. But she comes to see that he and his family are more caring than those to whom she turned.

She refuses to betray the Macleods to Patrick Sellar when he returns and we see that she has learned the value of community, care for your neighbours, has moved to a different set of values and beliefs.

Writing the novel Consider the Lilies

The demographic trends, probably as a result of better public health and improved medical science, means that we are living longer today. It was rare for people to reach their 80s in the past. Iain Crichton Smith had a reason for choosing a very old woman to be the protagonist of this novel. Using one of the weakest villagers emphasises the inhumane actions of the landlord and his agent.

The novel strongly conveys the cruelties of the Highland Clearances, and was very much in tune with social history at the time it was written, in the 1960s. The landowners and the church together are the antagonists in this novel. Iain Crichton Smith (1928 – 1998) was brought up on the Isle of Lewis and spoke and wrote in Gaelic as well as English. He was critical of dogma and the abuse of authority, as revealed in this novel.

And the title? It is from the New Testament and suggests that Mrs Scott is as significant as any other person. But it also suggests that appearances can deceive and its use questions whether God will provide. 

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:28-31)

The author mixed fact with fiction. The clearances took place and there was an agent called Patrick Sellar who went on to make a good living out of the farms that replaced the villages. He worked for the Duke of Sutherland’s estates. He was later accused of causing the death of an old woman in an arson attack on her cottage. Of course he was acquitted. 

Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith, 1968. I read the edition published by Phoenix in 2001. 144pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk

Even if you can’t say her name (and I can’t) you cannot have missed the presence of Olga Tokarczuk on the literary scene. Flights won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018 and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018. (It came a year late due to some politicking which is irrelevant.) Many of her compatriots celebrate her creativity. Most pleasing, passengers on public transport in the city of Wroclaw were allowed to travel free if they were carrying one of her books on the weekend that the award was announced. Jacek Dehnel, poet and translator, says ‘she is the greatest writer in my language today’. 

There are others in Poland who see her as anti-Catholic, unpatriotic, leftist and suggest that she has promoted eco-terrorism. This last charge probably relates to Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones in which hunters in the narrator’s village are being picked off. Does she deserve the criticism or the accolades?

Many readers of the blog will know that I am championing fiction containing older women. This will be the 44th in the series. I am trying to read more novels in translation since I was guest host on Global Literatures in August, looking at older women around the world. This novel was suggested to me by Emma Wallace the producer of the BBC radio programme Women’s Hour. It featured a discussion of  fiction by, for and about older women in which I took part in August.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones

From the start this novel presents itself as a bit of a mystery. There is the title, a quotation from the unorthodox English poet and visionary William Blake. His work features at the head of each chapter and in the subject matter of the novel as the protagonist is helping her former pupil and Blake-enthusiast to translate Blake into Polish. I do not understand the title.

The mystery is also in the subject matter. Who is killing the hunters in this border village? The narrator, Janina Duszejko (or Mrs Duszejko as she prefers) lost her two precious dogs to hunters and she spreads the idea that it is the animals taking their revenge. But the story also has the qualities of a fable in that animals have magical qualities. 

The story is located in a village on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, on the margins of two countries. Like the narrator, the village is out of kilter. Poland is compared unfavourably to the country across the border where all is perfect. The village empties every winter. Events often take place at night when it is hard to see clearly. The murders occur periodically and the police are confused by the evidence. The narrator is drawn into the search to identify the murderer. 

Mrs Duszejko has some friends, also outsiders: Oddball her neighbour, Good News a friendly woman who keeps a secondhand clothes shop, Dizzy a former pupil, and Boros the etymologist. They help each other and form a loose social group.

The themes of the novel concern the treatment of animals, ageism, being outsiders and it has a definite political edge. 

The older woman

The narrator Mrs Duszejko is in her 60s and something of an oddity, considered so by the authorities, partly because she is old and lives on her own and is a vegetarian. She does not live as an older woman is expected to. She doesn’t know she should sing at a funeral, remove herself from the scene of a hunting when instructed by the hunters, wears what she likes, is single. She finds herself treated as older women are, that is ignored most of the time, patronised at other times. Her behaviour frequently confuses those who question her, and the reader. She writes weirdly, with capital letters for many but not all nouns. She also suffers from Ailments, which are never clarified or defined, nor do they appear to limit her activities a great deal.

She is also discounted because she is passionate. For example her letter to the police does not receive an answer, despite asking for explanations of some important aspects of the murders. Like all old women, and many old men, she is ignored and made invisible.

Here is her account of her meeting with the police commander.

I could almost hear his thoughts – in his mind I was definitely a ‘little old lady’, and once my accusatory speech was gathering strength, ‘a silly old bag’, ‘crazy old crone’, or ‘madwoman’. I could sense his disgust as he watched my movements and cast (negative) judgement on my taste. He didn’t like my hairstyle, or my clothes, or my lack of subservience. He scrutinized my face with growing dislike. (35)

And here is another older woman, the Writer, who suggests this with Mrs Duszejko’s agreement.

‘You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.’ (221)

Mrs Duszejko studies astrology, and this was an aspect of the novel I found hard to understand. Perhaps it is as good a way of understanding the world as any?

Olga Tokarczuk

She writes novels that are in ‘the continental tradition of the thinking novel’ (Kapka Kassabova in The Guardian). It could be seen as a simple mystery, but identifying the perpetrator of the crimes is not the most important aspect of this book. More significant questions are posed.

The smoother argument made in “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” is that conforming to nature is sanity, whereas conforming to humanity is idiocy. To be in constant grief due to the cruelty of man is not misanthropy, it’s pure logic. “What sort of a world is this, where killing and pain are the norm?” Duszejko asks. “What on earth is wrong with us?

From August 2019 New York Times review by Sloane Crosely.

This is an inventive writer, one who changes her approach and who is making a name for herself, and perhaps for Polish fiction. I am on the side of the applause. She does that excellent job in fiction of showing us the world as we do not normally see it, and this time through the eyes of an older, activist woman.

Drive Your Plow over the Dead Bones by Olga Tokarczuk, first published in Polish in 2010 and in English in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. 266pp

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft from the Polish and also published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. My review can be found here.

And some blogs I found useful in reading Drive Your Plow are The Lonesome Reader and Translating Women.

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Little Old Lady by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel  by Annette Sanford (guest post)

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

I like the way the translated version of the title sets up a tension between the image of a biddable older woman and breaking the rules. All the best titles hold some contradictions I believe. And here is an older woman who is not the stereotype of the little old lady. Indeed she is not afraid to stand up for herself and for others and to create a community of older activists in the process. A great basis for a novel about an older woman. This is a guest post, by a writer friend, Carole, who responded to my request for examples of older women in fiction and got herself volunteered. 

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules is the 43rd in the series of older women in fiction. This is what Carole wrote for me:

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules

Here is a little old lady who fights back. Martha is no passive acceptor of whatever is thrown at her by life. She takes an active part in shaping her future and that of her friends. 

When greedy new owners force cutbacks to staff and services, Martha Andersson decides that conditions in prison would be preferable to those endured by the inmates of the Diamond House Retirement Home. A lack of outings, microwaved meals and a cocktail of appetite suppressants and sedatives make doing time seem a luxury to the residents. Spurred on by a hidden stash of cloudberry liqueur, Martha encourages her friends to form the League of Pensioners and to embark on an adventure. Together they set off to commit a crime that will get them banged up.  

Although Martha is a 79 year old lady who knits and uses a Zimmer frame, she is portrayed as a woman who is so much more than just that. She has a past life with skills that can be utilised to help her overcome the present crisis. She has a strong character that inspires her to want to fight injustice, a logical mind and an imagination. She is so much more than ‘a little old lady’. While medication may have masked the talents of Martha and her friends, it has not robbed them of their ability to remember the people they were – and still are. Within the limitations that age has inflicted (an ability to forget things and slower reactions) Martha wrestles with her problems and comes up with ingenious solutions that utilises the talents of her friends in League.

While occasionally disbelief must be suspended, Martha is portrayed as a real and likeable character. The plot is funny and shows us people who are having relationships, who worry about how they look and what they’re going to eat. They bicker and gripe but mostly they rise to the challenge. Despite their crimes I found that I was on their side and their honourable intentions were enough to carry me through to the end. It is interesting that the original title in Swedish offers no inkling as to the age of the protagonist. It may be that the change of title was made because of our fixed ideas about what ‘little old ladies’ should be doing in their twilight years. 

The book raises questions about what we expect from ‘old people’ and whether dignity should be a right. It shows how easy it may be to sit back and accept a restricted life and limited opportunities as part of ‘growing old’ never questioning whether something better is possible. Worse may be the ease with which we (i.e. younger than ‘old’) accept that prognosis for others – defining them by their years not their ability. Although it is greed that has sparked the changes in the Diamond House Retirement Home, the book raises questions about the standard of care offered in so many of our own retirement homes where cost cutting is biting into the normal stuff that we, who consider ourselves to be less than ‘old’, may take for granted. Read in the present light of questioning whether it is wise to write people off just because they are old or infirm, this book gently highlights some thoughts on the matter. Martha shows that by utilising people’s changing abilities and encouraging adapted skills, great things can be achieved. 

It is a book that I would strongly recommend. It is light and easy to read with a humour that underlines the most serious of questions. Martha is a likeable character who bravely battles the system but she, and her friends, also show acceptance of other people’s foibles whether these are caused by old age or just part of being human. While the book has a tremendous feel-good factor, it gently gets you thinking. 

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules  by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg. First published in 2012 by Bokfürlager Forum, Sweden under the title Kaffe med Rån  (Coffee with Robbery). This edition published in 2014 by Pan Books. Translated by Rod Bradbury.

Guest post written by Carole Ellis

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel  by Annette Sanford (guest post)

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

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