The party’s not yet over
Ordinary, boring, controlled life in an old folks’ home takes an interesting turn as crimes are committed. But daily tramrides in Helsinki, the virtues of friendship and general joie de vivre are enjoyed by 90-year-plus-old ladies who refuse to act as expected – as Bette Davis put it, old age is no place for sissies. Minna Lindgren is interviewed by Anna- Leena Ekroos
Welcome to Twilight Grove, a Helsinki home for the elderly – the bright, institutional lighting in its parlour creating an atmosphere like a dentist’s office, the odd resident dozing on the sofas, waiting for the next meal. The menu often includes mashed potatoes, easy for those with bad teeth. Residents seeking recreation are offered chair aerobics, accordion recitals, and crafts. A very ordinary assisted living centre, or is it? In Minna Lindgren’s novel, Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa (‘Death at Twilight Grove’, Teos), the everyday life of a home for the elderly is the setting for absurd and even criminal happenings, suspicious deaths and medical mix-ups.
Anna-Leena Ekroos: You’re a journalist and writer. Formerly you worked for the Finnish Broadcasting Company. In 2009 you won the Bonnier journalism prize for an article of yours about the last phases of your father’s life, and his death. Kuolema Ehtoolehdossa is your first novel. How did it come into being?
Minna Lindgren: I’ve always known I was a writer but the mere urge to write isn’t enough for a novel – you have to have a meaningful story. The more absorbed I became in the life of the old, the more important it felt to me to write this story. Writing a novel turned out to be carefree compared to working as a journalist. Many of the stories I heard would have become bad social porn in the media, dissolved into banality, but in a novel they become genuinely tragic, or tragicomic, as the case may be.
A-L E: This book could be classified as a mystery, but is it above all a description of aging and society’s attitudes about the aged?
M.L: I didn’t know I was writing a mystery, but you could think of it that way. Perhaps it’s an adventure satire. Of course, an assisted living centre is an environment conducive to criminal activity; the residents’ medications are powerful drugs, monetary transactions are handled without the residents’ knowledge, and no one is monitoring what the private sector is up to when it provides elderly care.
A-L E: There are three main characters in the novel: Siiri, who always makes the best of things, Irma, who is fond of red wine and music, and the realistic Anna-Liisa, who’s always correcting their grammar. How did you come up with this charming trio?
M-L: I used the same technique that Richard Wagner used in his operas – I put my own characteristics into every person. Irma was actually based on my own mother; Siiri was probably more a portrait of my own future; and Anna-Liisa’s personality reminds me of my father, who liked to concentrate on the matter at hand and not get sidetracked, and used to give us long lectures. Anna-Liisa’s tremendous interest in Finnish language is also my own passion.
A-L E: Irma, Siiri and Anna-Liisa are in their nineties. It is quite rare nowadays to read a novel with protagonists who were born at the beginning of the previous century.
ML: I wanted them to be unmistakably old. Nowadays even a 85-year-olds can get offended if they’re called old. Someone who’s over 90 had seen war and seen the progress from times of real want to today’s over-consumption. Members of the younger generations are travelling all the time to different parts of the world, but nobody has any money to spare for taking care of the elderly. 93 years of life gives the problems we wrestle with a suitable sense of proportion.
A-L E: The vast technological changes over the course of Irma, Siiri, and Anna-Liisa’s lives cause difficulties but also create humorous situations in everyday life. You have to remember your one code to pay for groceries with your debit card, another code to turn on your phone. Attempting to deposit money into your own bank account nowadays is an unusual thing to do.
ML: Yes, my three characters were already retired before computers conquered the world. They don’t even know how to look for a lost walking stick online, so they’re completely isolated from modern society.
A-L E: These old women’s families are noticeable mostly by their absence in the book. They’re in too much of a hurry, can’t fit them into their weekly schedule.
ML: I’ve visited a lot of assisted living facilities, and I haven’t run into people’s relatives – many of them store their older relatives in assisted living precisely just because they won’t have to worry about them. Grandma’s supposedly safe and sound. Lately there’s been a lot of interest in technological possibilities for increasing the safety of the elderly: floor sensors, motion sensors and timers that allow a family to relax and monitor their beloved mother’s life from thousands of kilometres away.
A-L E: Your novel has quite serious themes, but it is by no means gloomy. There’s plenty of humour in it, verging on parody. Friendship also brings its light to the story – friendship among the three women, between Siiri and her grandchild’s boyfriend, for example. In the words of poet Aale Tynni, ‘Of all, of all that we can have, friendship is the greatest.’
M.L: That’s right. A person can make friends, and even fall in love, at any age they want.
A-L E: This book is also a portrait of Helsinki by tram: Siiri takes several trams every day, and her tram rides are also journeys into her memories of the city.
M.L: My grandmother was run over by a tram when she was 10 years old and lost one of her legs. In the 1970s she had a crude, heavy prosthesis, but she wanted to see the world. So she used to take one of us grandchildren with her, tear the map of Helsinki from the front of the phone book and put it in her purse, and we would go for tram rides. I loved that, and I’ve always lived near a tram line. Siiri Kettunen seeks meaning and adventure in her life by riding the tram around her beloved city, most of it built during her own lifetime.
A-L E: Is it possible that Siiri, Irma, and Anna-Liisa’s saga could continue?
M-L: I’ve promised to write a trilogy, because it sounds impressive: The Twilight Grove Trilogy. In the next installment the characters are the victims of a plumbing remodel and they encounter home care and consider euthanasia.
Translated by Lola Rogers
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About the writer
Anna-Leena Ekroos (born 1968) is a freelance journalist and critic living in Vaasa.
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