‘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.
The indomitable Hendrik Groen – Holland’s unlikeliest hero – has become a cultural phenomenon in his native Netherlands and now he and his famously anonymous creator are conquering the globe. A major Dutch bestseller, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen will not only delight older readers with its wit and relevance, but will charm and inspire those who have years to go before their own expiry date.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen is a wonderful book. It is sad, happy, poignant, funny – I laughed out loud a few times. There’s even a love interest. It’s a work of fiction by an author whose true identity is not known but it is so well written, it’s easy to believe it is all true. It’s also very entertaining.
Initially I thought the first few pages seemed a bit monotonous. I was wrong. I think that is deliberate to give a flavour of life in a residential home for the elderly. The story gets better and better as we get to know the main characters and they start venturing further afield.
Hendrik has been in an Amsterdam care home for three years. He’s considered courteous, polite, helpful, civil and he keeps quiet to avoid confrontation. He rarely says what he would really like to say. You get the sense he is a bit of a worrier and doesn’t like to upset the apple cart.
Then he decides to keep a diary – an exposé of a year in the care home and it’s residents – to allow his true voice to be heard.
I love the opening lines:
“Another year, and I still don’t like old people. Their Zimmerframe shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and biscuits, their bellyaching.”
“Me? I am eighty-three years old.”
Initially his diary entries document the complaints and petty squabbles of some of the residents, and the routine of the care home with all the rules and regulations regarding what residents can and cannot do. It all seems a bit monotonous (possibly an accurate description of life in some care homes!).
Early on, even Hendrik suggests his diary entries are a bit gloomy however the book is by no means dismal or depressing. It is written with humour and the other residents are described brilliantly. You really begin to care about some of them.
When Eefje Brand moves into the home Hendrik considers her to be pleasant and like a breath of fresh air. He also finds a spring in his step and a reason to look forwards.
There is also Mrs Stelwegen, the director of the home who becomes something of an adversary when Hendrik and a few friends form the Old-But-Not Dead Club as an alternative to the rather boring activities and entertainments that occasionally take place in the home. The Club members plan excursions and escapades away from the routine of the home.
Firm friendships are formed among the club members. We also get glimpses of the friends’ personal stories and how they came to be in the residential home. I found Hendrik’s story very moving – especially given the quiet way he revealed his circumstances.
There are ups and downs for the club members. It’s sad when the inevitable happens and friends pass away but the Old-But-Not Dead Club will continue, there are more excursions to plan and Hendrik is now looking forward to the Spring – and he’s going to start a new diary.
An excellent, entertaining read.
UK Publication date: 25 August 2016
[My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Penguin UK – Michael Joseph for a review copy of this book].