Book review: The Exit by Helen FitzGerald
Two lives on a shocking collision course… one young, boundless and full of possibilities, and the other, old, severely limited and approaching the ‘exit.’
Death, dementia, ageing, obscenity and obsession will all have their part to play when flirty, Facebook-addicted Catherine Mann reluctantly takes a job at her local care home, and soon finds her comfortable existence blown apart.
Welcome back to the powerful storytelling of Glasgow-based writer Helen FitzGerald, an experienced social worker and the acclaimed author of The Cry which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year.
FitzGerald has made it her business to tackle taboo subjects in fiction, and The Exit is another hard-hitting, socially aware novel, perfectly attuned to the harsh realities of contemporary domestic life and unafraid to explore the darker recesses of the human psyche.
Twenty-three-year-old Catherine from Clydeside is beautiful, self-centred, still lives at home and openly admits that past boyfriends would label her ‘a vacuous narcissist.’ Her single mother Maureen, a busy, orderly social worker, despairs of her daughter’s lack of ambition.
At mum’s prompting, Catherine finally takes time out from social media and applies for a post as an assistant at Dear Green Care Home, ‘the only job that required fewer skills than a crew member at McDonald’s.’
Hitherto, Catherine has always avoided elderly people ‘as if being old was infectious,’ and when she is first assigned to the care of dementia patient 82-year-old Rose Price, the ‘old bird’ scares her with her jeans, Doc Marten boots and short hair dyed a shade of blackcurrant.
But Catherine discovers that feisty Rose was once a writer, in fact the author of her favourite childhood books. Her memories dimmed, Rose flits now between past and present, haunted by a trauma in her own childhood and still half aware that dementia is ‘like living in a maze and the exit is death.’
Rose also has a secret; she is convinced that ‘something very bad’ is going on in Room 7 at the home and that her own life is under threat. But is Rose just imagining a new trauma, could there be any substance to her fears and who would believe her anyway?
As Catherine starts investigating Rose’s claims, she unearths some terrible truths. Can she find out what’s really going on before it’s too late?
FitzGerald’s experiences in social work lend her novels piercing insight and breathtaking authenticity and when these are harnessed to a creative imagination, the result is chilling, absorbing storylines littered with disturbing truths, dark humour and spine-tingling tensions.
Sparked into action by engaging characters and flashes of unexpected comedy, The Exit moves inexorably from slow-burn to red-hot as the mundane becomes menacing, the offbeat becomes sinister and suspicion turns to disbelieving terror.
This is a deeply unsettling story that moves in shadowy corners most of us will never visit, but there are also haunting reminders of the all-too-familiar cruelties of dementia, the loneliness of old age and our innate fear of death.
Trapped in a vortex of suspense, mystery and revelation, readers will discover there is only one way out of The Exit… and that is to read to the very last page.
(Faber, paperback, £7.99)