The best books with brilliant old women as heroines

Jacqueline Yallop Author Of Obedience: A Novel
By Jacqueline Yallop

Who am I?

Sister Bernard, the main character in my novel Obedience, is ninety. I’ve always been fascinated – and afraid – of what it means to grow old, particularly as a woman, and I like exploring the perspectives that age can bring. I enjoy seeing older women given a voice, especially when they don’t turn out to be the easy, likeable characters we might expect. There aren’t that many books with really old women as the main characters, because age is not glamorous or comfortable, but that’s why it’s interesting. I hope the novels on this list go some way towards redressing the balance. 


I wrote...

Obedience: A Novel

By Jacqueline Yallop,

Book cover of Obedience: A Novel

What is my book about?

In a convent in the French countryside, three elderly nuns prepare to move into a nursing home; they are the last surviving members of their nunnery. Packing up her few belongings, ninety–year–old Sister Bernard struggles to remember the time she has spent in the convent, the years blending together as a fog of ritual, penitence, and sacrifice. But there is one memory—one face—that is impossible to forget. In chapters alternating between World War II and the present, this searing novel moves between the nun’s tragic, passionate youth and her stoic, lonely final years, subtly articulating the decades of suffering incurred by a single act of reckless love.

The books I picked & why

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Stone in a Landslide

By Maria Barbal,

Book cover of Stone in a Landslide

Why this book?

In this short beautiful novel, Conxa looks back on a life blasted apart by the Spanish Civil War. The Pyrenean setting of the story is as magnificent and brutal as the action here, but what I love most is the calm, timeless voice of Conxa as she tells her story of love and war and family. This is a brilliant book about what it means to live a long life and the lingering effects of the past.


Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

By Olga Tokarczuk, Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator),

Book cover of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Why this book?

This is an intriguing murder mystery set in the evocative Winter landscape of the Silesia Region of Poland, close to the Czech Border. When Janina’s two pet dogs go missing, a murderous chain of events begins. The eccentric and feisty Janina is funny and warm and cantankerous – I love how she stands up for what she believes in, taking on her neighbours and haranguing the police and bureaucrats.


The Stone Angel

By Margaret Laurence,

Book cover of The Stone Angel

Why this book?

Hagar is ninety years old, and looking back on her life as she puts up a fight against being sent to a nursing home. This is a really moving story that makes you re-think family loyalties. The harshness of life on the Canadian prairie shines through, and Hagar’s independence and bloody-mindedness is inspiring. 


Elizabeth Is Missing

By Emma Healey,

Book cover of Elizabeth Is Missing

Why this book?

Even though Maud is old and forgetful, she’s absolutely sure her friend Elizabeth has gone missing – and puts up a fight to find out what’s happened to her. This warm and uplifting story captures the comedy, anxiety, and sheer terror of finding out you and your friends are old, and no one will listen to you. Such a sympathetic and moving portrait of dementia.


Florence Gordon

By Brian Morton,

Book cover of Florence Gordon

Why this book?

Seventy-five-year-old Florence is clever, outspoken and belligerent, sharp-witted, and sharp-tongued. Reliving memories of the American Feminist Movement at its height, she’s a great character forced to confront her own aging and the difficult dynamics of her family life. Crackling dialogue makes this book a slick and entertaining read.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Spanish Civil War, murders, and Canada?

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