MR. SCOBIE'S RIDDLE by Elizabeth Jolley


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Like Miss Peabody's Inheritance (above), this slightly earlier Jolley novel is a mixture of comedy and pathos--but here the blend, with darker humor and a broader array of wayward souls, is somewhat more satisfying. Retired music-teacher Mr. Scobie, 85, is the latest unfortunate arrival at St. Christopher and St. Jude, a vile little Australian nursing home run by genteel, ruthless Matron Hyacinth Price. (The novel's funniest pages are the memos back and forth between fastidious Matron Price and her inept, semi-illiterate, cheerily imperturbable Night Nurse.) Stuck in a single room with two other, less coherent octogenarians, Mr. Scobie longs to go home. But his crass niece is looking forward to selling his land; his hearty, ne'er-do-well nephew (a character reminiscent of those 1950s Ealing film-comedies) is too shadily busy to help; a visiting social worker is a gormless neophyte; and icy Matron Price herself is determined to hold onto Mr. Scobie--at least until he signs over all his worldly goods to her (near-bankrupt) nursing home. So Mr. Scobie, sometimes lost in memories (of his hapless lust for a comely young student, of his beloved house), must endure life at St. C. and St. J.--the all-night poker games in the next room, the feuds among the motley female staffers (with lesbian tensions like those in Miss Peabody), the instant devotion of mad inmate Miss Hailey. . . who sees musical Mr. Scobie as a kindred spirit for her own literary, artistic, sensitive soul. And though Mr. Scobie tries twice to escape on his own, the only escape--as suggested in that riddle of the title--is death, with the inherited Scobie property then becoming a commune for an odd clutch of Scobie relatives and nursing-home veterans. As in Miss Peabody's Inheritance, Jolley sometimes seems condescending and coldly detached as she toys with these often-pathetic lives. (The book begins, unnecessarily, with a cute, distancing, page-by-page summary of the action to follow.) Here, too, there's a lack of novelistic shape. But, with a large cast of eccentrics, obsessives, and hypocrites, this slight, occasionally poignant tale does show off Jolley's strongest talents--for sharp social observation, dotty dialogue (""These are your legs I suppose?"" leers one octogenarian at a social worker), and ghastly-edged farce.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1984
ISBN: 0892553693
Publisher: Penguin