Every now and then news stories show up in fiction. I’m not talking about the big political stuff, the wars, Brexit and terrorism – they are and always will be part of serious, contemporary novels – but the feel-good stories that come at the end of the bulletin. The animal stories, the charity fund-raisers and lots of nostalgia – they all make for books with an interesting angle. In the last couple of years there have been articles about nurseries being based in retirement homes, and even a tv series on the same theme, but one of the earliest stories concerned students sharing an accommodation block with pensioners. Considering the fact that David Barnett is a journalist it should come as no surprise that he has picked up on these stories.
Jennifer Ebert is a student who needs to change universities (no spoilers, but photos from a truly disastrous night out mean she is never going anywhere near her old campus again) and the only accommodation available is in Sunset Promenade, a residential home for the elderly. The home is being run by two brothers, in memory of their mother, on a shoestring and with hand-picked residents: although when we meet some of them we wonder why they were picked. There are also four students making their home there, as an experiment and in an effort to get some extra funding, Jennifer (who has decided to live her life as if she were in a Film Noir), John-Paul (known to all as Ringo because he is, after all, from Liverpool) and two Chinese students (a very sharp young lady and a rather shambling lad who she keeps calling stupid).
Jennifer makes friends with one of the residents, the rather smart and glamorous Edna Grey, and the unlikely group start to learn to live together. In fact Jennifer starts a film group for the home – showing films made by her grandfather, unseen for years – and all goes well (or as well as it can with only one member of staff, the long-suffering Florin, and a group who are variously needy, rude and downright reactionary) until items start to go missing and the group start to wonder how ell they really know each other. Add in the fact that the home’s owners are in financial difficulties and it becomes apparent that all is not rosy at Sunset Promenade.
If you read Barnett’s last book you’ll be expecting the blend of humour and heartbreak but if you haven’t be prepared for something rather special. Bittersweet and though-provoking – perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant, Hendrik Groen et al.