The Old Man at the End of the World may be full of zombies but the protagonist is an 87-year old man who finds himself unwittingly thrown into the apocalypse on a sunny Tuesday morning.
Readers have a great fondness for older central characters. Through their eyes, those of older generations may well be inspired to grow old disgracefully (something we all desire, right?) and people of younger generations can see the world in a new light. The most inspiring people I know are certainly over 70, many over 80. I only wish that firstly, I make it to that age, and secondly, I will have the same twinkle in my eye as people who’ve become young-at-heart as they’ve aged. In the last few years, a number of authors have captured this desire for youthful exuberance in older protagonists and produced some hilarious and beautiful novels not to be missed. Here are four of my favourites.
The wonderful The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (and translated by Rod Bradbury and now also a fantastic Swedish-language film directed by Felix Herngren) is a now classic example of an older protagonist with twinkle in his eye! The 100-year-old Allan Karlsson never fails to delight with his humour, his relaxed nature and his cheeky way, all told in parallel to the frankly astounding role he played in twentieth century history. It has a totally ridiculous storyline and is full of Scandinavian humour (prompting mostly one-star or five-star reviews and not much in between) a flow of one-star reviews, but it’s clever and silly and light-hearted and if you don’t take it too seriously, it’s a jolly good romp.
If The Hundred-Year-Old Man isn’t your cup of tea, then I’d highly recommend picking up a novel which takes its older protagonist on a literal and physical journey of self-rediscovery, The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, which was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2012. Rachel Joyce creates a wonderfully venerable and lovable character in Harold Fry, who finds his strength on an impromptu journey from Kingsbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed, a journey of over 600 miles.
For a cynical, and sometimes side-splittingly funny, look at life through the eyes of ‘a bitter neighbour from hell’, it’s hard to beat Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (beautifully translated by Henning Koch). Ove is the typical retiree you don’t want to wind up living next to, the kind of guy that would report you to the residents’ association for leaving your bin out too long. But under his cantankerous exterior lies a complicated character who has been shaped by sadness, and it takes the unexpected kindness of neighbours to bring him back. As the blurb says, ‘it is…a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul.’
In another Swedish offering, The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg (also translated by Rod Bradbury), 79-year-old Martha Anderson dreams of escaping her care home and robbing a bank, a scheme into which she coerces her four oldest friends, also residents of the neglectful Diamond House care facility. Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg is clearly passionate about the plight of pensioners and seeks to portray their frustration with the social system via their desire to spend a good, long stint in jail, where they will likely be treated better than they are in their care home. Got to love the Scandinavian penitentiary system! Great news is, if you love it, there are two more in the series, one yet to be translated.
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