I need to be more objective in my judging during my Tournament of Books, realising that I failed miserably at my first attempt! So I have pre-determined the criteria for this bout: cover (as both of these books were added to my TBR due to their covers), plot, characterisation, scope and LOL moments. This last criterion is added because this bout will determine the book I will champion to win the 2017 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction.
Today’s post concentrates on Nina Stibbe’s Paradise Lodge, which can be said to have thrown down the gauntlet to James Robertson.
I couldn’t leave Paradise Lodge on the tables in the wonderful Main Street Trading Company this time last year. It’s a wonderful shop that I’m unlikely to visit again. I knew it at the time and so Paradise Lodge came home with me as a souvenir. The vibrant yellow dustjacket, with the almost louche child of the 70’s (the flared trousers and platform boots give it away) lounging on the bed, reading a book and smoking a surreptitious cigarette drew my eye immediately. Curiosity ensured the sale when I realised the novel was set in an old people’s home. So what is this young girl doing there? I had to find out.
Her name is Lizzie Vogel; she is fifteen, and she takes on a Saturday job at Paradise Lodge for the pocket-money to buy herself some luxuries (such as beer shampoo for voluminous hair!). Except it’s anything but a paradise – there’s a power struggle between the modernisers and those who hold the purse strings. The modernisers don’t win and leave to set up a rival home. As numbers deplete, through natural attrition and the superiority of the new facility, new custom and replacement staff become increasingly difficult to secure. The home, which at the beginning was run-down and chaotic, descends into a state of crisis, relying as much on voluntary help and food donations from the local Chinese restaurant as on professional staff.
Lizzie’s Saturday job soon becomes much more. Evening shifts, emergency cover, the matron takes advantage, not only of Lizzie’s good nature, but of the residents as well. Lizzie’s level of truancy increases accordingly and soon Lizzie finds herself threatened by an unscrupulous headmistress. She will be removed from the ‘O’ level stream unless she helps the headmistress
kidnap remove her father from Paradise Lodge. He, it seems, is spending the headmistress’s inheritance on fees …
This is one of many entertaining subplots. Another involves matron’s attempts to find herself a rich client who will bequeath her a home to live in. And then there is Lizzie’s home life, almost as chaotic as life at Paradise Lodge, due to her clueless, bohemian mother.
There’s never a dull moment in these pages. The subplots (each with an element of recognisable truth in them) twist and turn around each other in misadventure after misadventure, and yet Stibbe detangles them all in a most satisfactory and sometimes surprising way. Neither is the novel devoid of its serious moments – this is an old people’s home where death is an unfortunate reality of life.
In many ways this is Lizzie’s coming-of-age, a time when she learns to separate the superficial from the important. Her Saturday job catapults her into an environment that accelerates the learning curve dramatically even as the poor girl must deal with the trials of adolescence (working out who her real friends are, the pangs of unrequited love).
Lizzie is a wonderful lead with selflessness and compassion beyond her years (though that could be accounted for by the responsibilities she has towards her younger siblings). Yet the ultimate twist in the tale is the lesson this adolescent must learn is that sometimes she must put herself first.
She is supported by a host of vivid supporting characters: the residents and staff of Paradise Lodge. The residents suffer the indignities of old age patiently with good grace. Some are saints and some are … just a little bit naughty. The sinning is reserved for matron and the headmistress, though only one can be declared villain of the piece by the end.
Scope and setting 8/10
This is a finely scoped situational comedy, venturing out of the old folk’s home only occasionally into Lizzie’s family home and school. And yet as Lizzie reflects on the meaning of life, friendship, love and death, the scope of the novel expands into the philosophical.
The 1970’s setting with its lack of regulation (working hours, health and safety, truancy laws) gives the author leeway with regards to plot that a contemporary setting just would not allow. It also allows for product placement, which for me, also a child of the 1970’s, brought back a raft of nostalgic memories.
LOL moments 8/10
I laughed out loud during the first couple of chapters, though I can’t remember exactly where. Once I was acclimatised to Lizzie’s voice and could anticipate, not so much. Even so, this is a very funny novel, and one I am likely to reread, when in need of a pick-me-up. The smile on my face, as I write this, is very broad indeed.
Total score: 42/50 or, if I were to use my former star-rating system:
Why not 5 stars? Lizzie’s mother annoyed me!