Glance at the literary canon and you'll find no shortage of books that seek to capture the adventure, passion and romance of youth. By comparison, the ups and downs of old age can appear grossly overlooked – and when they do come into focus, the elderly are often the butt of the joke.
Indeed, according to a recent report by
The Centre for Better Ageing, “media portrayals of older people have become increasingly negative, tending to represent older people as frail, dependent and in decline.”
But as anyone of a certain age knows, growing old is not all blue rinses, loose dentures and dementia. And Dumbledore and Gandalf are far from the only senior citizens flying the silver flag in literature. Look hard enough, and you'll find a wealth of books that explores the permutations of growing old – the hopes and fears, the nostalgia and regrets, the love, passion and excitement that punctuate our winter years. Look no further, in fact, than these great reads.
by Bernadine Evaristo (2013) Mr Loverman
A septuagenarian gay man of Caribbean descent is a rare combination in British fiction, which is why
Bernadine Evaristo's Barrington Jedidiah Walker Esq. broke new ground in 2013. At 74, the crypto-lothario has convinced his wife Carmel he has a low sex drive, so he can save his ample erotic energies for his true love, Morris Courtney de la Roux – the man he first fell for as a boy in Antigua.
A suave, rambunctious and intelligent vintage dandy, he's been having the affair for some 60 years. And now – with two daughters, a grandchild and a marriage on the rocks – he's finally ready to “come out”. But with that comes an internal struggle: can he “jump into the great abyss of social alienation” to finally be true to himself? The result is a funny and deeply moving exploration of London's older Caribbean community that blows open cultural myths around manliness and homosexuality in ways few writers have been brave enough to do before.
by Howard Jacobson (2019) Live a Little
“No other novelist writing in Britain could dramatise this nonagenarian love story with greater verve and tenderness, while never forgetting that this is a resplendently comedic form,” wrote Guardian critic Tim Adams of
Howard Jacobson's 16th novel. He was right.
It tells the story of Shimi Carmelli and Beryl Dusinberry – respectively north London's most eligible elderly bachelor (mainly because he can still do up his own flies) and a harrumphing war widow with two politician sons she barely likes. Beryl's tragedy is that she forgets everything. Shimi's is that he remembers it all. And when they meet at the funeral of the latter's brother, sparks fly as they are brought together by the shared realisation that so long as they have life, they have a future.
by Rachel Joyce (2012) The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Harold Fry is a greying man in the grip of an ennui he can't quite put his finger on. But when he receives a letter from an old flame telling his she's dying in a hospice at the other end of the country, he leaves his wife of 47 years to walk the entire length of England to be with her. He doesn't quite know why; only that he must go.
What follows is an exquisite portrait of memory, forgotten purpose and coming to terms with one's own mortality, as Harold meets a menagerie of strange people on his journey and learns, ultimately, how a life can so easily get drowned out by the noise of past experience, and then joyously rediscovered. “The past was the past,”
Rachel Joyce writes, “there was no escaping your beginnings.”
by Linn Ullmann (2020) Unquiet
Linn Ullmann is the daughter (one of nine, by different women) of the venerated Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. And this profound study of love, life, death and the legacies we leave behind is the fictionalised story of their relationship, based on a series of recordings Ullmann made with her father as he was dying on a remote island in the Baltic sea.
As she looks back on her childhood, youth and middle age, Ullmann presents a beautiful and tender meditation on time, memory, growing up and getting old, all through the prism of her father's slow, and at times painful, decline, as she poignantly asks, “Can I mourn people who are still alive?”
One of our books of the week for September, it is an unforgettable read.
by Deborah Moggach (2004) These Foolish Things
This is the bestselling novel about finding joy in retirement that inspired the hit movie
The Exotic Marigold Hotel, starring Judy Dench and Maggie Smith. It follows a team of strangers, isolated in England by a variety of late-life issues, from haunting memories to arthritis, uncaring offspring to unfashionable world views.
So they ship off (or are shipped off) to a chaotic and dilapidated hotel in Bangalore that offers itself to UK golden-agers looking to "outsource" their retirement-care needs. There they can sip gin and mango juice and watch reruns of
Porridge on TV, while confronting their confusions about life and death, duty and freedom. But the characters are what make Deborah Moggach's pensive and absorbing study of the vicissitudes of twilight life glow – a vibrant, plucky and life-affirmingly human bunch thrown out of their comfort zone into a world where they can truly be themselves.
by Julian Barnes (2008) Nothing to Be Frightened Of
Like most people,
Julian Barnes is afraid of "the catheter and the stairlift, the oozing body and the wasting brain". So he wrote this memoir to confront this fear of growing old – “the most rational thing in the world.”
Its narrative circles the late lives, and deaths, of his parents, Albert and Kathleen, who lived out their winter years in a retirement bungalow, not getting on particularly well.
And within that story, Barnes offers an unflinching gaze into that cloaked and bony joykill that comes to us all, as he muses, not so much on the meaning of life, but on the meaning of death – and how we should all approach it, afraid or not.
“How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can’t remember the past you’ve shared?”
by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015) The Buried Giant
There comes a time in all our lives when our memories outweigh our hopes, and our past overtakes our future.
Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant is about just that – a beautiful reflection on memory and forgetfulness, set in a Tolkein-esque world of swords and dragons, told through the eyes of an elderly couple on a quest to find their lost son.
Trouble is, neither Axl nor Beatrice can remember why he's missing because an evil dragon has exhaled a mist that, once inhaled, wipes all memories of the past. So, what starts as a search for their missing boy becomes a quest for the very memories that make them who they are in a genuinely lovely portrait of late-life love, epitomised when a woman asks Beatrice: “How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can’t remember the past you’ve shared?”
by Richard Osman (2020) The Thursday Murder Club
Too often popular culture seeks to make fun of older people – dodgy hips, weird smells, wobbly dentures and wobblier memories.
Richard Osman's The Thursday Murder Club is all about laughing with them.
Set in a sleepy retirement village, a group of ex-pros – an ex-spy, an ex-psychiatrist, an ex-nurse and an ex-trade union leader – kill their Thursday afternoons investigating cold cases over tea and cake. But when a property developer is killed right under their noses, they pick up the scent, falling headlong into a real-life game of Cluedo that will put their nerves, wits and groaning bodies to the ultimate test.
The message: old age has it benefits. And soon the wily bunch will use their specific sets of skills to out-sleuth the police themselves in a hilarious and cliché-free portrait of later life that'll remind you never to underestimate the elderly.