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Book review: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years by Hendrik Groen, Hester Velmans (Translator) 


Getting old is scary – and also inevitable.  I've chosen to describe this book as a bit of a complement to “Being Mortal” reviewed in my earlier blog.

The author writes from the perspective of an 83 year old man living in a old people’s home, facing a range of health problems and declining mobility.  In his diary he documents his frustrations with the small mindedness of his fellow residents, and the arbitrary power of the management.

What makes this book special is the imagination with which he tackles the situation.  With his friend Evert, he finds a small group of like minded people to form the “Old but not yet dead club” and they create for each other a fantastic set of outings, all involving a lot of fun, and a surprising amount of food and alcohol.  The group become firm friends, and are soon the envy of the institution.  They take on the management with the assistance of a retired lawyer, who just wants to be paid in wine…

For me the book is about friendship and acceptance, and making the most of the reality of the situation that you are in, a philosophy exemplified by the central character.   His growing love for Eetje and the losses over the year make this a profoundly moving book, and I cried at the end of it. I also felt uplifted by the support they offered each other, which made very terrifying aspects of growing old so much more bearable.

I feel the book shows how life can be lived to full, whatever age you are, and where ever you live, as long as you have some friends to share it with – and are willing to go out and find, and make those friends.  I wondered who the author is – in some ways I don’t really mind, though I would be disappointed if it turned out to be a young woman.  I would like to think it is someone who is experiencing old age and coming to terms with their own mortality and that of their friends.

Whilst it is very funny in places, it is also quite gruelling at times.  He paints such a vivid picture of the home that for me, the frequent deaths of his fellow residents are both an every day occurrence and painfully real.  Some reviewers found it slow going at first – which it is a bit – and criticised it for being morbid, self obsessed and making fun of old people.  I don’t think it does this, but what it does do is bring us uncomfortably close to the prospect of infirmity, illness and loss, the death of others and our own mortality.  That is both scary, and enormously helpful.  It helps that it has so much humour in it   I recommend this book!


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