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Jo Owens Gives Voice To Stroke Survivor In Debut Novel 'A Funny Kind Of Paradise'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"A Funny Kind Of Paradise" is written in a voice we cannot hear - of Francesca, Frannie, who survived a stroke but cannot move, speak, dress or eat on her own. She needs help just to bathe or relieve herself. Frannie lives in a facility alongside four others and is cared for by a rotating cast of attentive aides. But inside - inside, she often seethes.

JO OWENS: (Reading) The stroke has left me emotionally labile, and the feelings that I have struggled so hard to contain - or at least disguise in shrouds of anger are naked for all the world to see. I literally lack the muscular strength to suppress them. But here is the gift. I don't care. I don't care. My right hand is useless, I can't speak, and more people have seen my bare ass in the last year than if I was a streaker at the opera because I need my diaper changed for God's sake. Do you think I care if you see me cry?

SIMON: Jo Owens has been a health care aide for 20 years in Victoria, British Columbia. "A Funny Kind Of Paradise" is her debut novel.

Thank you so much for being with us - so good to talk to you.

OWENS: It's my pleasure, Scott. Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: Has this novel, these characters, this story been taking shape in your mind for a long time?

OWENS: Only about 20 years, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

OWENS: Scott, when I first started working as a care aide, I, of course, was collecting my magpie stories, all the fun and interesting and especially the funny things that happened. Then in 2004, our then-premier rolled back the wages of the care aides. He'd - health care cuts right across the province. And as you know, money talks in our culture. It's what we think is important, so we were not thrilled.

We, the care aides, did a lot of talking about how people didn't know what we did and didn't value what we did. They didn't think it was important. I thought, I can address that issue.

SIMON: How many people have gone into the Frannie you have created, would you guess, that you've known over the years?

OWENS: Oh, my gosh, maybe a hundred.

SIMON: What did you want a reader to understand in particular?

OWENS: What I hoped was that I would be able to increase the empathy for people that live and work in care. That was the first goal. The second goal was - as you know, we're hitting a demographic crisis here, a silver-haired tsunami. Everyone is experiencing having someone in care, putting someone in care. And I've been through that myself. And the grief, the sorrow, the regret that you feel when you place a family member in care is such a huge challenge. If I could help anyone with that process, I would be delighted.

SIMON: One of the many delightful notes of your book is that you get the impression that the chitchat of the aides, this interesting group of people - Lily, Michiko, Molly - the chitchat kind of helps Frannie feel connected to life, doesn't it?

OWENS: Absolutely, it does. But you want to be careful. I - at the end of the book, I put a disclaimer saying that, really, we're not supposed to do this. But it's not human. And definitely what my residents need is human. And they love to listen in. They get a huge kick out of it.

SIMON: And you're also struck by the fact - takes a lot of courage to live the way Frannie gets through the day, doesn't it?

OWENS: Absolutely, it does. Aging is not easy. Mind you, as you know, no part of life is easy. Life is hard. Pick your hard. But it does take courage for Frannie to be the person that she is. She's not done. She's still living a life. She still has revelations to make. She still has insights to gain. She still has relationships that are import to her. She's not done. It's not over.

SIMON: And her reflections on her life are not done. She's got some repair work that she wants to do in her heart, doesn't she?

OWENS: Absolutely. Frannie was a single mom. She really believed that if she took a blunt hammer to a situation, she could make anything go the way she wanted it to. Anyone who's had kids is going to know that's not going to work. And Frannie has experienced some tragedies in her life. A daughter went missing, and she has a son that is not exactly happy. It's part of her process to look at what's happening with her children and what happened with her daughter and make peace with herself with the job that she did do.

And that's something that I don't think that Frannie could have done if she hadn't been given the gift of time at the end of her life. And it's not over until it's over. You still have a chance to work on yourself. This isn't just fiction. That's my experience at work.

SIMON: I have to ask you a difficult question, I think. Your novel comes out at a time when it's especially timely. And given the terrible losses in nursing homes, are there too many people in our society who somehow consider those people who are living in facilities like Frannie to be, forgive me, acceptable losses?

OWENS: Disposable?

SIMON: Yeah.

OWENS: I don't see it that way. It's all about the choice. It's all about being able to choose for yourself. How we treat the more vulnerable people in our society is a measure of our value as a society, as a measure of our worth as a society. I'm fully supportive of someone who thinks that it's time for them to go, given that person is capable of making that decision. But nobody should be making that decision for someone else. And losing elders due to a pandemic is not an acceptable loss.

SIMON: Jo Owens - her debut novel is "A Funny Kind Of Paradise."

Thank you so much for being with us.

OWENS: It was my honor and my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 8, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of the headline on this story used an incorrect title for the book.