Helen Fitzgerald, ex-pat Aussie author, has made a name for herself writing domestic psychological thrillers, finding tension in the everyday experience. The Exit is no different - set in a fairly luxurious Scottish old age home it deals with difficult subjects – dementia, old age, palliative care. The Exit places these observations within the framework of what could possibly be a thriller… or just as possibly the ravings of a woman with dementia who spends most of her time living in the past.
Catherine is a 23 year-old, looking for something, she is just not sure what. She dreams of a running away from her mother to a lifetime of beach holidays. Instead she finds herself being given a job in the local old age and palliative care facility, a converted stately home. From the start things seem a little odd, but there is nothing that Catherine can put her finger on. One of the residents in Catherine’s care is 82 year-old Rose, a former children’s book author now suffering dementia. Rose is constantly reliving a traumatic incident from when, as a ten-year-old, she was sent to the country with her sister during the Blitz.
Rose thinks something is going on at the home, something to do with the residents dying. She has drawn pictures which attempt to explain her fears but often cannot remember what the pictures represent. But the home also provides palliative care, and dying is generally what its residents come for. Rose’s raving is put down to her dementia but Catherine begins to suspect there is something more to it. She begins to investigate, picking up on the slightly strange goings on around her, but her investigations are sporadic and often derailed by misunderstanding and her own suspicions about Rose’s mental state.
Rose and Catherine are the extraordinary centres around which the plot of The Exit pivots. They are both such sympathetic and ultimately human characters, each trying to teach and help the other in their own muddled way. The middle section of the book, in particular, throws Catherine into a completely new light. It is the individual stories of Catherine and Rose, the ways in which they deal with life and tragedy, that elevates this book above the thriller category into which it could be pigeon-holed.
The last act of the book is where the thriller element really starts to bite. And while some of the plot mechanics in this section are a touch clichéd, they are also completely in keeping with the characters. All of the twists, ugly as they are, are earned and the finale is suitably ambiguous.
The Exit is another strong, complex and disturbing book by Fitzgerald. In it she asks difficult questions about the way in which we deal with life, death and ageing. It is also a cautionary tale for an ageing population, as we start to see our loved ones and ourselves, perhaps, moving into some form of institutional care.