Even before meeting those winning and winsome literary
silver arctic foxes Harold Fry* and Allan Karlsson**, I’ve long held a special place in my heart for older men with a bit of a twinkle in their eye and a penchant for roguish mischief and storytelling, thanks to a much-loved and missed uncle, and a godfather who wrote the best letters I’ve ever received. Through university, I soon migrated away from the student’s union bars to the spit-and-sawdust pubs of Cardiff, in search of their kind. So it feels only natural that I still look for them in the pages of books I read. This year, he appeared in the form of Hendrik Groen.
‘Another year and I still don’t like old people. Me? I am 83 years old.’
Hendrik Groen may be old, but he is far from dead and isn’t planning to be buried any time soon. Granted, his daily strolls are getting shorter because his legs are no longer willing and he had to visit his doctor more than he’d like. Technically speaking he is … elderly. But surely there is more to life at his age than weak tea and potted geraniums?
Hendrik sets out to write an exposé: a year in the life of his care home in Amsterdam, revealing all its ups and downs – not least his new endeavour the anarchic Old-But-Not Dead Club. And when Eefje moves in – the woman Hendrik has always longed for – he polishes his shoes (and his teeth), grooms what’s left of his hair and attempts to make something of the life he has left, with hilarious, tender and devastating consequences.
You may not immediately warm to Hendrik Groen: he might come across as a grumpy old man, grisly and grouchy, cantankerous and difficult, looking only to cause trouble and upset the staff and other residents of the Dutch care home where he lives under a myriad of regulations. But stick with him because under that irascible surface is a fighter, a survivor, and a man with a good heart. All his attempts at obstruction, and subversion of the rules of the home, are simply his way of asserting himself: of refusing to be a number, a burden, an object in the way to be moved around by others, and instead saying that he’s still alive and is very much a human being like you and me, the only difference being that he’s a little further along his life path.
As you get to know Hendrik a little better, as he opens up to you and others within the home, this is where the book really comes into its own. I enjoyed getting to know him and the other characters, and seeing how their relationships develop and deepen. It’s interesting to see how Hendrik himself changes when he is given a purpose and has people who he comes to care about. It’s touching how much of a difference it seems to make to him and makes you think about how that could be done for others in real life.
It’s a book which is in turns funny and poignant, because while it’s making you laugh at Hendrik’s observations, it also makes you think about the condition of care homes and the treatment of old people in them, by the staff, their family and other visitors, and, of course, by society as a whole. I completely understood why Hendrik and some people he felt sympathetic towards would want to form an Old-But-Not-Dead Club, and was cheering them on to bigger and bolder adventures to break up the routine, monotony and sometimes even sadness of everyday life in the home. But it also made me angry that people would have to take this initiative themselves to remind themselves that they are still alive, and made me feel sorry for those who weren’t included (although I understand why not everyone could be. It would have made the group unworkable, especially for the purposes of the story.)
By the end of the book I’d developed a real fondness for these old people, and especially Hendrik, and like to imagine them shuffling around the home still, coming up with adventures to go on together. It’s also made me more determined to look out for the older people I know in my local area, and those I meet when going about my daily life. Since reading the book, I’ve made more of a conscious effort to talk to people who are alone, and possibly lonely. Hendrik Groen’s tale is touching and funny, while also being subversive and irreverant, and it’s made a real impression on this reader. So if you can, take Hendrik Groen out and spend some time with him, he’ll grow on you, I’m sure. And if that leads to more positive change in real life, I think he’d look at you with a definite twinkle in his eye.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old was written by Hendrik Groen and translated into English by Hester Velmans. It is published in the UK by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Random House and is available as an ebook, an audiobook and in hardback. You can buy it from Amazon UK, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. My thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for review through NetGalley.
* Harold Fry first appeared in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and ** Allan Karlsson was The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson