Review: Vivien Horler
Bloomer, by Anne Schlebusch (Modjaji Books)
So it’s lockdown in Cape Town, and the residents of Hazyview Mansions, a state-subsidised home for the aged, retreat into their own rooms, getting their meals for the day served on a tray every morning.
At first it seems it will be a lonely time, but the real fear of ending up ill or even dead makes the residents obey the rules with little complaint.
A group of friends, led by the irrepressible Maggie, discover that it’s not that difficult to stay in touch via phones and Zoom, and they keep each other’s spirits up.
Eventually the lockdown stages ease, but Hazyview management still won’t let the oldies out, and Maggie and her group decide to rebel.
They demand freedom of movement within the Hazyview premises, which includes a garden, and decide a jailbreak stunt is needed to put their views across.
With the help of children and grandchildren on the outside, an optog is arranged, complete with custom-made “Rebel Boomer” masks, protesters carrying posters in the street outside, reading: “We got your backs, Grans and Gramps”, pamphlets handed out by grandchildren explaining what it is all about, a band in the grounds of the church across the road, a disco car playing Elvis singing Jailhouse Rock at top volume, along with streamers and balloons.
They make enough fuss to attract the press, after which a somewhat dazed management has a think and lets the oldies out of their rooms.
And this is just the beginning. People who had resigned themselves to a life in a care home, at the last station before checking out for good, feel a revival of their spirits – and their bodies, after exercise is permitted.
They call themselves Bloomers, a play on the fact they’re mostly of the Boomer generation, and are now blooming.
And they continue to bloom, and attract media attention about what they’re doing to promote issues affecting the aged, including – this seemed a bit of a stretch to me – an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
There is also a rather charming romantic angle, when an old flame of Maggie’s comes back into her life, forcing her to choose between a retired history professor at Hazyview and the old flame.
Various reviews of Bloomer have emphasised how funny it is, “riotous fun”, “a total hoot”, and it is. There is a hilarious episode where Maggie, still in lockdown, starts reading her old diaries and recalls attending an art class where the model is a scornful looking naked man. The class is full, and all that Maggie can see uninterrupted is the man’s penis, “lying in a humble curl”. Her subsequent drawings win her an art prize and some notoriety.
The oldies start a campaign for better food and more exercise. Maggie reads a meme which amuses her: “I see people around my age mountain climbing, and I just feel good getting my leg through my underwear without losing my balance.”
But there’s a serious side to this funny novel. During another CNN interview, Maggie says what has made her so happy about blooming is “old people finding and using their voices”.
And she gives some bullet points about issues that are most important to old people in care homes:
- Sensible rules that don’t infantalise adults
- Proper food in the right quantities
- Physical wellbeing ie exercise
- Things that keep brains and bodies going
- Supported autonomy
Later on, during the happy ending, Maggie ponders that life is fun – “maybe even more so for septuagenarians who could legitimately live as if there’s no tomorrow, if they decide to set the compass that way”.
I didn’t like the cover of the book – it’s hard to make out the title – and the narrative slowed a bit in the middle but picks up later. This is an accomplished debut adult novel by a Cape Town writer and writing coach.