Zimmer Valley

These Foolish Things

Deborah Moggach <em>Chatto & Windus, 281pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0552144991

Given Deborah Moggach's commercial success as a novelist and scriptwriter, the subject of her 15th novel seems bizarre. These Foolish Things is about a retirement home - not what you would expect from the woman who brought us lesbian sex in Close Relations and whose highly sensual Tulip Fever is being made into a film starring Keira Knightley. How exactly does a Dettol-scented world of bedpans and catheters, of Alzheimer's and leaky prostates, fit into all of this?

Very well indeed, actually. When Ravi Kapoor - a disillusioned Indian surgeon living in Dulwich - meets his entrepreneurial cousin Sonny for a drink one night, they hatch a business plan that is both ridiculously far-fetched and strangely logical. If huge companies can relocate offshore, they reason, why shouldn't retirement homes? After all, in India sunshine is plentiful, there's no smell of boiled cabbage, and return flights to Bangalore, the centre of India's high-tech industry, are "cheaper than Connex bloody South- East to Worthing and probably faster too". Indians, as Sonny proudly explains, "care for our elders and betters - know what our pension scheme is called? It's called the family!"

So it is nicely ironic that Ravi's ulterior motive for finalising the scheme is to bundle his scrofulous old lech of a father-in-law on to the first plane going east.

After some strategic marketing to emphasise the "Raj aspect", Dunroamin Retirement Hotel is up and running. The "outsourced" pensioners who create their very own Zimmer Valley in the midst of all that silicon are a motley bunch, but hugely endearing. Slathering sun cream on their wrinkles and taking mango juice in their gin, Norman, Dorothy, Evelyn, Muriel et al embrace their new life with gusto.

This charming novel has only minor faults. The convergence of storylines towards the ending is implausibly convenient, and the nuggets of "eastern wisdom" punctuating the beginning of each chapter are arbitrary and pretentious. The utterances of some of the characters are more philosophical - if unwittingly so. "What happens when we die?" asks Minoo, the hotel manager, to which Sonny briskly replies: "The same as in England . . . Cremation, burial . . . I will make the arrangements, leave it to me." Then quietly, Minoo wonders: "What happens to us all?"

By allowing her characters to make trenchant observations about the National Health Service, care in the community, pension schemes and racism, Moggach obliquely criticises the dismal state of welfare in Britain. Pondering the imminent collapse of the NHS, Dorothy points out: "Now it was cheaper to send people to France for new hips. They returned, glowing with praise and with a taste for red wine at lunch." Somehow, with the unlikeliest of topics, Moggach has come up with something astute and entertaining. The lead in this one might not be played by the starlet du jour - but it will still make a great movie.