The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old – Hendrik Groen

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This isn’t the sort of thing I normally read. Recently I signed onto NetGalley to get my hand on The Summer That Melted Everything, and I got a bit carried away requesting ARCs.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen is enormously popular in its native Holland, so an English translation seems more or inevitable. Penguin credits the novel to Hendrik Groen, the protagonist, but the true identity of the author seems to be a mystery. My guess is that it’s Lady Gaga – if there was ever a celebrity with hidden depths it’s her.

Hendrik Groen is a nursing home occupant who records one year of his life in his diary. The main narrative arc concerns the Not Dead Yet Club, which Groen forms with his elderly peers to organise excursions outside their home. The club becomes a prism through which Groen focuses on his dislike of most of the other people in his nursing home, and his antagonism towards the management. He also forms meaningful relationships with other members of the club, one of which might force a tear from your eye. But you’d have to look pretty hard for this plot thread, unsurprisingly this diary narrative is episodic.

All the characterisation and dialogue worked fine. The best character was Groen’s mate Evert, who is like the Kramer to Groen’s Seinfield. I’m surprised his cake-in-the-fishtank prank didn’t make the front cover. I’m also a bit annoyed that the man actually on the cover has a full head of hair, as Groen often jokes about his shiny pate.

This Secret Diary has its origins in some Dutch magazine website, and perhaps it should have stayed in that format. I’m not saying that it’s a bad story, just that its lack of direction makes it hard to stay invested in a long novel. Perhaps Penguin should convert parts of this novel into an email newsletter, or one of those thick calendars with a page to each day, and each page would have something about Hendrik Groen written on it. They’re apparently making an Office-style adaption of this franchise in Holland, that could work brilliantly.

This book has many strengths, but I won’t be looking out for the sequel.

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