Even if they don’t live in a nursing home, the fate of most people past age 90 is to become nearly invisible. That’s what makes Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson’s decision to cast two Londoners in their 10th decades as the principal characters in his sly new novel, Live a Little, such a bold one.
As she approaches her 100th birthday, Beryl Dusinbery (nicknamed “Princess”) must confront the frustration of living with memories that often resemble a piece of Swiss cheese. When she’s not stitching morbidly humorous needlepoint “death samplers,” she’s doing her best to gather fragments of her colorful, romantic past in a biting journal d’amour.
Shimi Carmelli, former owner of a shop that sold phrenology busts, at times wishes he suffered from Beryl’s frequent memory lapses. Instead, he’s afflicted with perfect recall, and much of what he remembers about his distant childhood, including the brother from whom he’s been estranged for decades, is a source of deep pain. Residing in a flat above the Fing Ho Chinese Banquet Restaurant, where he appears periodically to engage in the practice of cartomancy (fortunetelling with ordinary playing cards), he’s considered the “last of the eligible bachelors,” at least among the elderly widows of North London.
It isn’t until roughly the novel’s midpoint that Beryl and Shimi meet and Jacobson’s talents as an astute student of human nature and his mastery of witty, acid-dipped dialogue shine brightest. Through an almost continuous conversation that begins in a cemetery and proceeds in a Regent’s Park cafe and elsewhere, the secrets concealed by these strikingly different characters gradually see daylight.
“We meet to touch nerves,” Beryl tells Shimi, who believes they’ve come together at “the perfect age to enjoy a verbal friendship.” And though Beryl believes they’re “both stuck with the parts we learnt to play a long time ago,” the subtle changes we witness in these characters belie that rueful assertion.
Live a Little’s message—that life isn’t truly over until it ends—is a refreshingly optimistic one for readers of any age.