The Carer
Deborah Moggach
Tinder Press, £16.99
Review by Alastair Mabbott

JAMES, an 85-year-old retired Physics professor, has reached the stage of needing round-the-clock care. His children, Phoebe and Robert, both in their early sixties, live too far from James’s Cotswolds home to look after him, and neither really wants to. So, after a couple of carers fall by the wayside, they settle on Mandy from Solihull, with her uncannily smooth skin, hefty build and Rose West glasses.

Both siblings grew up yearning for their father’s attention, but his mind was always on some higher plane, when he was present at all. Phoebe reacted by rebelling. Now, unmarried and childless, she lives in a Welsh village half-heartedly painting rural scenes and having a fling with a dreadlocked guy from a shack in the woods. Robert, on the other hand, tried to impress his father by working in the City, which wasn’t really him, and married a high-flying TV newsreader. Since being laid off, he has been trying unsuccessfully to claw back some self-respect by writing a novel.

Although Mandy has taken the responsibility of looking after their father off their shoulders, Phoebe and Robert are disturbed by how his transformation from sharp academic to “doddery old man” has accelerated under her care. Mandy infantilises him, and as they’ve grown closer James has got into scratchcards, window-shopping, watching Pointless and trading local gossip, very unlike his former self. Mandy also brings a frisson of class tension into the siblings’ lives, berating them openly for the easy time they’ve had and calling them “moaning minnies” for hanging on to childhood resentments about their father’s neglect of them – a theme Moggach develops in an interesting way in the second half. When they see that she’s been going through his documents, and discover that a previous client left Mandy a flat in his will, they begin to fear the worst.

Beyond which it would be best to reveal no more, suffice to say that Moggach has a twist or two up her sleeve. And that, in a novel concerned with reconciling oneself to lies and subterfuge with good grace, the transformative powers of forgiveness and generosity of spirit are best expressed not in Phoebe and Robert but somewhere we initially wouldn’t have thought of looking.

Coming from the author of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it’s an absorbing, bittersweet novel with an irrepressible thread of sly satirical comedy running through it. Moggach seems to be having the most fun when portraying the contemporary rural world in which her characters live: from thriving Welsh towns populated by “ageing hippies with impeccable Guardianista credentials” in which “every second person is an artist, most of them women”, to James’s moribund village “which woke up at weekends when the Londoners arrived in their Porsche Cayennes”. Is the countryside of England and Wales full of middle-class, middle-aged women knocking out watercolours of cow parsley before nipping off for a quickie with a crusty and getting back in time for choir practice? Moggach does tongue-in-cheek with such firm conviction that one just goes along with it.