The Waiting Game by Bernice Rubens ★★★★½
Narrator: Anna Bentinck
Edition: Isis Publishing (2014), Unabridged MP3; 8h47
Original publication date: 1997
This is without a doubt among the best books I’ve read this summer, and indeed, all year. I’ve been meaning to read Bernice Rubens’s books for several years now, ever since another avid reader brought her to my attention. Until then, I wasn’t really aware of her work. I’d heard of the movie Madame Sousatzka, based on her novel, because Shirley MacLaine had played the lead role, but had it not been for Kerry, Rubens might have gone on being completely unknown to me for decades longer, which would have been a sad loss. As it is, I’ve slowly been accumulating some of her books, and was delighted to discover Isis Publishing had recently put out audiobook versions of a number of her novels, all read by very good narrators.
The Waiting Game of the title takes place at Hollyhocks, a distinguished home for the aged close to Dover, where only the gentry need apply for admission. Matron, who keeps things well in hand, has always seen to that, and she has always been able to sift the scent of class from the other less pleasant effluvia of aging. Lady Celia is queen among the patrons, being the only one of the residents holding a title, and all the other residents defer to her in all matters. Of course nobody has any idea she makes a comfortable living with a thriving blackmailing concern which she runs with the help of a partner and Mr Venables, aka The Ferret. Yet, though they all show her respect, most of the residents dislike Lady Celia because their instinct tells them she will outlast them all. Jeremy Cross has more reason than most to hate her as he’s made outliving everyone his one and only obsession. He keeps a constantly updated list of those who have passed away before their time and has every intention of outliving all the other residents at Hollyhocks, especially Lady Celia.
Each resident in the house has his or her secrets and when newcomer Mrs Thackeray arrives, she and Mrs Green become friendly and embark on seemingly harmless fantasy-ridden retellings of the past. After all, Mrs Thackeray had endured a miserable and sexually abusive marriage which isn’t fit to talk about, while Mrs Green, well.. she perhaps has more reasons than most to wish to reinvent herself. Of course, for the most part, only the reader is privy to everybody’s secrets, though in the end a very big surprise is revealed to everyone. I admit I saw it coming, but this didn’t take away from my pleasure one bit especially given Rubens’s speciality happens to be a very dark brand of humour, one of my personal favourites.
I’m not sure why it is I enjoy reading about elderly people so much (and here I should specify when I say ‘elderly’, I do mean old and frail enough to need to be in retirement homes)—it probably has to do with the fact that having lived so long, and lived through many generations, they’ve inevitably accumulated life experiences, have fully blossomed into the unique individuals those experiences have forged them into, and invariably have stories to tell, and in the hands of skilled writers, these characters can yield pure magic. Two of my all-time favourite novels feature men and women who are in the winters of their lives: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark and All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (click here for my review). Both gems which I intend to revisit often and heartily recommend.
I can see lots more Rubens in my future, and this was a great place to start. Next up will be A Five Year Sentence, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978 and which I’ve pre-ordered on audio and will be released on Sept. 1. Among the endless book stacks there is Madame Sousatzka and The Elected Member, which was the Booker Prize winner in 1970. I should really clear off the cobwebs and read that one soon given how long it’s been lying around.