The Exit by Helen Fitzgerald

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Reviewed by Harriet

He offered to show me around, but I said I was in a hurry. I didn’t want to see old people unless somebody was paying me for it. I didn’t like them. They jumped the line to get on buses, they drove slowly, packed groceries slowly, paid for groceries slowly, infected us with their miserable faces, had trouble paying gas bills, told boring stories, smelt of wee, took up space. I was ageist, so shoot my firm optimistic face.

This is 23-year-old Catherine (‘I don’t have a problem admitting I’m cute’) Mann who, caving in to her mother’s pressure to get off Facebook, get a job, pay off her credit card bills, and make some plans for her future, has just had an interview for a care-worker’s job at the Dear Green Care Home (‘the only job that required fewer skills than a crew member at McDonald’s.’). Much to her disgust, she gets the job (at £6.19 an hour), and her first day starts with a lecture on different types of dementia. Soon she is introduced to 82-year-old Rose, once a famous children’s author, now suffering from a kind of intermittent form of the disease, in which she swings between being more or less completely on the ball in every way and regressing to her ten-year-old self. During these episodes, she is always in the same place, a farm in Wales where she and her sister were evacuated in WW2, and where a deeply traumatic event occurred. When Rose is in the here and now, though, she is absolutely convinced that something terrible is going on in Room 7 at the care home. But everyone just sees her as an old woman with dementia, so how can she ever get anyone to believe her?

Rather against her will, Catherine becomes increasingly drawn to Rose, and gradually comes to believe there may be some truth in her allegations. Possibly she might not have done anything about it, but for the fact that her own mother becomes a patient at Dear Green, suffering from an inoperable brain tumour. Painful and tragic though this is, nursing her though her final weeks proves to be the shock Catherine needed to shoot her into a more adult and responsible way of viewing the world. And what’s more, if Rose’s suspicions are to be believed, Catherine must act fast to save her mother from a horrifying and macabre end to her life.

This is such a great novel in so many ways. It’s funny, harrowing and moving, sometimes more or less simultaneously. It’s impossible not to love Catherine, much as you may be irritated by her total self-absorption, and of course it’s good to watch her growing up and learning to care what happens to other people. Rose is terrific, too, her wonderful, sharp, creative mind still functioning when it’s not submerged under the maze that sends her back into her childhood. She actually saves the situation by writing herself notes:

ROSE – BELIEVE YOURSELF. It is sick and dangerous here. You’re not writing this down because of the maze. Ring Catherine! Tell her to get the police. They might believe her. They never believe you and they are wrong.

Fast moving, full of twists and turns, peopled with some scarily bizarre characters, The Exit is a real page-turning delight from start to finish. I loved it, and I’m sure you will too.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Helen Fitzgerald, The Exit (Faber, London, 2015). 9780571287895, 304 pp., paperback.

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