What a joyous novel.
It may seem on the surface to be a dull read, a woman who is sent to a nursing home after a fall. What ensues is anything but.
Once in Woodlands Nursing Home, Hattie Bloom is determined to leave as soon as she can, even with the risk of further injuring her barely healed femur.
You see, Hattie fell trying to protect a family of owls who live in her favourite tree. A tree that is in danger of being cut down.
And she won’t let anything get in her way of leaving, despite everyone telling her that staying in Woodlands is the best thing for her.
Her house is dingy, run down. Or as Hattie would say, has character. It’s too dangerous to stay in but Hattie won’t have it.
And so the great escape begins.
It’s here that Nell flexes her writing muscles with the introduction of a few colourful characters around the home.
Walter Clements, a typical old man who, at 90, acts like he is 60. Full of poorly thought out jokes made in poor taste and some outdated opinions, Walter is boorish and loud, confident in abilities that may not be as effective as they once were.
I didn’t expect to like Walter as a character. Having worked in nursing homes and known a few older men who act exactly like him, I expected to find him grating in the least. It’s Nell’s confidence and ability that keep Walter from becoming a caricature; she grounds him with a gentleness so often hidden and buried by men of that generation.
And now we come to the heart of the novel. Sister Bronwyn would be considered a minor character, only having limited time on the page, but her presence is felt from the first time she is mentioned until you put the book down. She works on the night shift at Woodlands and runs a group called the Night Owls.
Far from regulatory, Sister Bronwyn allows the residents to enjoy their time there. They eat jelly babies, play games, put on shows, take to hobbies that they used to love with abandon and vigor. In short, Sister Bronwyn gives these elderly people, who are so often stripped of their individuality in the name of routine, their lives back.
She treats them with respect, and sees them as people with decades of experience on offer. She allows them to maintain their dignity and their independence. And the message from Nell couldn’t be clearer.
Homes are not places where we should stuff our elderly people like forgotten clothes in the back of a cupboard. They are places in which people of a similar age can connect, find friendships, rediscover their passion, and even love.
The hope and joy that the residents get from being a part of the Night Owls leaps off the page and you’re drawn in bit by bit just like Hattie is the first time she reluctantly attends.
Of course, there is also spying, a sting, and a heist, all beautifully intertwined with Nell’s pertinent themes, and sprinkled with heavy doses of humour.
And let’s not forget, there is an escape, though it might not be what you’re expecting, it is indeed great.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home; it’s a book that offers a different and important perspective on places that will one day be important to all of us.