On the way back from my daily dawn march in the park, I often pass my neighbour, a distinguished gentleman in his late eighties, taking the air on his doorstep. I stand behind the area railings and shout: ‘How are you?’ And he shouts back: ‘Bored!’ At least not lonely. His sixtysomething son is with him. But how solitary these lockdown weeks have been for the widow and the widower, the singleton and the bachelor.
Leaf Arbuthnot, a freelance journalist, could not have picked an apter time to publish her first novel Looking for Eliza, a redemptive story about grief, isolation and why everybody needs good neighbours. Its 75-year-old heroine Ada is a poet of the Wendy Cope school. Her subjects are birds, rivers, Oxford and her late husband Michael, an Italian literature don. Ada is out of fashion:
I’m not sure readers want bags like me. They want photogenic graduates from East Anglia with tattoos and attitude, writing about — I don’t know, takeaways, multi-culturalism, sexual assault.
Ada’s grief is ‘newly minted’. Michael has been dead for less than two years and she cannot write away her loss. Treating bereavement with rhyming couplets is ‘like trying to pacify a rampaging elephant with a lute’. To relieve the ‘absoluteness of her own company’, Ada posts flyers around Oxford advertising her services as a ‘Rent-a-Gran’. She is hired by a mother hoping to encourage her boomerang son to get on and get out; by an architect from Calcutta raised on Wodehouse, Waugh and Saki and wanting to know how to be a modern English gentleman; and by two good-looking chaps needing a stand-in grandma at their wedding.
If you found Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine too flabby and Rick Gekoski’s Darke too jagged, then Looking for Eliza is a pleasingly Goldilocks compromise. Or should that be Pinkilocks? For into Ada’s life comes Eliza, a drifting millennial with dyed pink hair. Bruised after a break-up with her gaslighting girlfriend, Eliza is living in a single room and trying (failing) to write a doctorate on Primo Levi. The generations clash — and come together.
This is unashamed ‘Up Lit’, as gentle and restorative as a breeze on May Morning. With Eliza’s encouragement, Ada begins to write again: poems about Holly Willoughby, persimmons and bad TV. ‘I’ve never believed the idea that happiness writes white,’ says Ada. ‘Especially at first, grief wrote white for me.’ Friendship is Ada’s salvation. This lovely, consoling hug of a novel is a tonic for our times.
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