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Fiction Contemporary Women

A Funny Kind of Paradise

by (author) Jo Owens

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2021
Contemporary Women, Family Life, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2021
    List Price

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A poignant, uplifting, brilliantly insightful story of one woman's end-of-life reckoning with her past, her lost daughter and herself, for readers of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Still Alice and Elizabeth Is Missing.

When her husband left her with a baby, a toddler and a fledgling business, Francesca managed--she wasn't always gentle or patient, but the business thrived and Chris and Angelina had food to eat. At nearly 70, she feels she's earned a peaceful retirement. But when a massive stroke leaves her voiceless, partially paralyzed and wholly reliant on the staff of an extended care facility, it seems her freedom is lost.

However, Francesca is still clear-headed and sharp, and she knows one thing: she wants to live. She savours her view of a majestic chestnut tree through the hospital window, and speaks in her mind to her beloved friend Anna, dead for two years. The daily tasks and dramas of the rotating crew of care aides tether her to the world: Young Lily, eager to fall in love and regularly falling apart when things don't work out; Michiko, with her spiky hair and tattoos and wicked sense of humour; Molly, endlessly kind and skilled in her work; Blaire, cold and enigmatic.

Amidst the indignities of bed baths and a feeding tube, Francesca is surprised to experience flashes of hilarity and joy, even the blossoming of a new friendship with a fellow patient. But as she reflects to Anna on her dutiful son and her troubled and absent daughter, regrets and painful realizations rise to the surface. For the first time, there is nowhere for Francesca to hide from her own choices, and she must reckon with her past before it's too late. A Funny Kind of Paradise is a warm and insightful novel about one woman's opportunity for reinvention--for unconditional love, acceptance and closure--in the unlikeliest of places.

About the author

Jo Owens is a witty and intelligent young writer who lives in Victoria, Canada, with her Significant Other and their two small children. In this book, she directs her unflinchingly personal style on the delights and difficulties of a modern parent.

Jo Owens' profile page

Excerpt: A Funny Kind of Paradise (by (author) Jo Owens)

My room is a five-bed ward. I survey my domain from my corner. Four other beds, four other souls, four other poor sods stuck here like me: my roommates.

I know the most appallingly intimate things about them. And they about me, those who are still capable of knowing, which does rather narrow it down. We are not as we were, let’s put it that way. (But unlike me, you are forgiving. You always were. Even now I am counting on your generous spirit.)

The bed on my left, in the darkest corner, belongs to Janet. Diabetes has made her blind and has taken her legs, amputated just below the knee, a fact that terrifies the new aides until someone teaches them how to position Janet’s sling properly to ensure her safe transfer to the wheelchair. Once in a while, she complains about pain in her feet; sometimes she remembers they’re gone and sometimes she doesn’t. The nurses take her blood sugars, twitter about “spiking” and “dropping,” adjust her insulin and tell the aides to push juice or back off. Janet says she doesn’t care. Janet hates the food.

Mary has the other bed with a window, but while my head is at the north wall, hers is on the south, so we face each other. Mary is the quintessential little old lady, with her permed hair in stiff white curls, her dentures, and a tissue up the sleeve of her cardigan. She is the darling, everyone’s favourite, loved for her smile and her sunny nature. She was still walking with the help of the activity aides when I first came here, but she’s on the slow slide, and no one would ever try to transfer her now without the overhead lift. She stiffened up gradually, and she talks a little less every day. We, her roommates, are grateful that she’s passed the stage of calling out constantly, “Hey, are you here for me?” thinking that someone was coming to take her home to her mama. Mind you, we do miss some of the more innovative excuses the staff used to try to convince her that her mother wasn’t going to be too worried about her whereabouts. “You’re so considerate of your mama!” they would coo on a good day. “Your mama knows you’re here and she’s glad you’re safe.”

“You’re ninety years old and your mama died fifty years ago!” they’d mutter under their breath on their way out the door.

Alice’s bed is perpendicular between Mary’s and mine, the head at the east-facing window and facing the door. Alice rarely rests. No wonder she’s such a scrawny pack of bones, shuffling from bed to bed, night and day, looking for her children or maybe her purse. There’s no malice in her, and if there ever was, she’s forgotten her spite. She acts like there’s something she should have remembered, on the tip of her tongue or tangled in the plaque in her cortex, thoughts like fishes struggling in a net. Poor anxious soul, endlessly tapping and sifting, sorting and folding, a worried expression on her face. Why they have her in the middle bed, open space on both sides, so exposed, I’m sure I don’t know. If I had to sleep there, without the comfort of a wall at my back, or a corner to turn my face to when I need to pretend I’m alone, I’d be anxious too. Even with the curtains pulled, Alice’s is the worst bed in the room.

Kitty-corner to me is the woman I know only as Nana, and of her, dearest Anna, there is not much left to say. She has reached that stage of living death where she lies completely passive. Perhaps some distant signals reach her or perhaps she has truly gone, leaving nothing but an empty shell. At any rate, if she has a family, I have not seen them yet, and there she lies, day after day, while the nurses shift her from side to side, tucking pillows between her knees to prevent skin rubbing against skin until it reddens and then rots. They raise her ankles so that the weight of her own feet pushing her heels into the bed won’t create sores (great blackened holes that must be dressed and never heal, as happened to the poor woman who had Janet’s bed before her.) Nana’s skin is like tissue paper; a careless fingernail may rip it. One day an aide tried to turn her over by grabbing her wrist, instead of placing a flat hand on her shoulder blade and she left a bruise the shape of her—

Snap! The lights are on, and I’m seeing stars. Molly’s voice, the specific tone she uses for training new staff, fills the room.

. . . just going to follow me, to get the idea of what the rhythm of your day is going to be like. You don’t need to help. I’m not interested in training you in nursing skills—if you don’t have those by now, you’re screwed. My object is to show you how to do a day shift. You need to know what it looks like to take care of six people by yourself, cuz that’s what you gotta do. Oh, she’s wet, draw the curtain, will you, we’re gonna take the top pad off, I don’t want her sitting in that.

Molly is talking about Nana, and now I can hear the sound of the electric bed whirring into the flattened position that allows Molly to move Nana most easily. The blankets flip back with a swish.

Most people are nice here, and they’ll set you straight as to who to do first and such, but they have their own workload, you know what I mean.


Every now and then you’re gonna run into an asshole, that’s reality; just tell yourself, “Oh yeah, Auntie Molly told me there’d be days like this,” and try not to let the negativity stick, cuz most people here are really good, thank God . . .

Okay, I’m just gonna fold this top pad over, like this, see, and then one quick flip and it’s out and she’s on her back, got it? Now we can sit her up for breakfast. Give me a lift up the bed, will you, her chin’s going to be on her toes. Yup, that’s right. Nice body mechanics, Gayla, you got it. There you go, Nana! Good morning, sweetie! Did you just finish your training, or have you been doing this work before?

I just finished. I did my practicum at Aberhart.

Okay then. Well, the good news is that unlike at Aberhart, you’re not expected to get everyone up for breakfast in the dining room at nine here.

Yeah, so I heard. That’s why I wanted to work here. It’s brutal, that morning rush. Get everyone up, so they can sit there looking at the dining room wall.

Yup, it sucks for the nurses, and it sucks for the patients. I’m telling you when I’m ninety-five, nobody is going to be getting me outta bed at seven fifteen unless I’m drugged to the hilt cuz I’m gonna fight it. All these years of early risin’ for the seven a.m. shift—no bloody way I’ll be getting up so I can sit on my ass getting pressure sores. Forget it, baby. These people deserve breakfast in bed, I figure.

At Aberhart, by the time breakfast comes, everyone’s up and you’re so tired you just want to go home.

Too right. Hey, Janet, I’m gonna sit you up for breakfast, here’s your napkin. This is Gayla, she’s our newbie. Don’t bother giving Frannie a napkin, she’s a tube-feed, right Fran? Good morning, sweetie!

I wave with my good arm and Molly blows me a kiss before moving on.

First floor gets breakfast first. It comes up from the kitchen at seven forty-five, so you gotta get everyone sitting up, but look, second floor, breakfast comes at eight, so if you’re quick you can get a couple of people washed up, and on third floor it comes at eight fifteen. Of course you’re starting casual, so you’re gonna be working everywhere, all groups. It’s a little rough at first, but it’s good experience. You learn to be flexible. Sink or swim. You gotta think on your feet, you’ll get used to it, don’t worry. It’s best if you can pace yourself. That way you can treat the residents a little nicer, take the time to do that little extra, eh? After all, most of us went into this job thinking we could spread the love a little, same time as we aim to put bread on the table for those kids, right? You have kids?

Yeah, one. She’s five.

Single mom?


You got your daycare lined up? When you’re on call, sometimes you don’t get much warning. It’s so tough at first. Sweetie, sit down. Breakfast is coming. This one’s pretty restless, aren’t you, honey? Sit down, sweetie. That’s right. Here’s your napkin. Breakfast is coming. That’s it, love. Usually I get her washed up first, she’s quick, but we were a little late getting started today, no worries. We’ll make it up. Not all these people are in my group, but Michiko, she sits mine up across the hall, and I sit hers up here, saves time, right?

Is she in your group?

Nana? No.

Molly pauses.

I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. Some of the girls don’t like you to touch their resident, but Michiko and I are on the same page. Besides, Nana’s mine next month, and I don’t want her wet, cuz group change is com

And that’s it. Molly and her charge are out of the room, on to the next task. I can’t hear any more, but it doesn’t matter because I’ve heard Molly’s training spiel more times than I can count. We, the thirteen residents in the North Wing, are divided into groups of six and seven and assigned to an aide. Molly is about to explain that, like all the regular staff, she and her partner will trade groups on the first of every month. Molly and Michiko have the permanent day shifts in the North Wing. Blaire and Bettina cover their days off, then go down to the East Wing to relieve the two permanent staff there, but their shifts don’t line up exactly, so sometimes Molly works with Bettina instead of Michiko, and sometimes Michi works with Blaire. The evening shifts work the same way, but there are only two aides for the whole floor on nights.

I like the system. While it’s nice to see a familiar face at my bedside, frankly by the end of the month my aides and I are ready for a change from each other. Of course casuals cover the regular staff for sick days and holidays; they have to fly by the seat of their pants. Sometimes they’re fresh and enthusiastic; sometimes they’re so green I’m afraid they’re going to drop me.

What can I do? I don’t get to choose my nurses.

These girls, these women and sometimes men literally and figuratively touch us in the most intimate way. They come and go like the staff in your diner, Anna. There are the lifers, who always make me think of mine-shaft ponies: solid, dependable beasts of burden, trudging along. Some are hopeless, some cheerfully resigned, some are even passionate about their work, but they just keep working steadfastly on.

Then there are the aides who are passing through. Molly or Michiko or Blaire train them, with varying degrees of cynicism and enthusiasm, because far less than half of new hires will last for long. Molly’s good; she’s a natural teacher, and she continues to treat every newbie as if she might stay. The work attracts all kinds of people, but it burns them out fast too. Some can’t stick it out on call long enough to get their own regular position. Some injure themselves or grow afraid that they will. Some are on their way to bigger, better things; they’ll bridge into nursing or work part-time here while going back to school. Some are still searching for what they want to do, but they’ve got to do something.

But no matter what their motivation for choosing this job, everyone starts at the bottom of the casual call list, flying in to work at a moment’s notice because who knows when they’re going to get around to calling the last person on the list again? And that’s the way it is until you move up the list enough to be confident you’re going to get sufficient work to pay the rent.

I know what you’re thinking, my darling Anna, you’re thinking, “Why, Francesca! You’ve changed! You sound almost compassionate!”

Yes, my dear friend. I’ve changed. Living here will do that to a girl.

Editorial Reviews

“[An] affecting debut . . . Owens’s believable, touching portrait of Frannie and the loving care of her aides is loaded with moments of beauty amid the swirl of regret and nostalgia. . . . These powerful final reflections of an irascible, regretful patient illustrate the unremarkable yet profound experience of nearing death.” —Publishers Weekly

“Owens, a care aide for more than 20 years, captures the skill and tenderness of caring for someone at the end of life in direct and unvarnished prose. . . . Each [care aide] . . . is richly drawn and complex . . . [and the novel] serves to illuminate a vital profession that has been rarely documented in fiction.” —Vancouver Sun

"Like pulling rabbits from a hat, Jo Owens manages the magic of reaching into the most abject places of the human heart—and other parts of the anatomy—and finding joy, humour and redemption. She gifts the reader a story told with elegant wit and irreverent humour, and characters brought to life with love, often of the tough variety . . . and there is nothing more tender. I love this book." —Ann-Marie MacDonald
“Jo Owens’ achievement is astonishing. She has created a heroine whose zest for life is as unstoppable as her curiosity about the caregivers and patients in her long-term facility, and whose capacity for change is sometimes painful and frequently funny. What a delight to be privy to Francesca’s blunt, ribald, exasperated and tender reactions to a life she never planned.”  —Katherine Ashenburg, author of Sofie & Cecilia and Her Turn
A Funny Kind of Paradise is a gorgeous and original novel that explores a reality too often looked away from. A deeply compassionate examination of human life and its immeasurable value.” —Kevin Patterson, author of News From the Red Desert