Anita Brookner – A Friend from England

Anita Brookner of “Hotel du Lac” fame. This novel was published in 1988 and set in perhaps 1980 or so. It’s style is stream of consciousness but with punctuation. The fervent drinking of tea is an ongoing theme.

Rachel part owns a small bookstore in central London somewhere in the West End. She lives in a small flat above the store and works in the shop all day with co-owner Robin and some bird whose name now escapes me. They never speak as she likes them superficially and no more. They know how each works so there is little need for talk. Robin goes swimming every evening and one day persuades Rachel to go with him. She hates water, is traumatised by the swim, and decides never to get wet again.

Rachel is single and her parents are dead and she is about 25. The author examines a last century, repressed middle class life with an electron microscope and then some.

Rachel has no friends, she spends all her time thinking about another girl called Heather who is the same age, and whom she does not like. Heather is the daughter of Rachel’s dead father’s accountant Oscar, a recent Football Pools millionaire. Oscar dotes on his daughter Heather, who is pale, thin and monosyllabic. He recruits Rachel during a tax advice session, to come to his home every Saturday afternoon to have tea and sit with his wife Dorrie and daughter. Strangely Rachel agrees and the rest of the book describes in infinitesimal detail the afternoon teas that ensue and Heather’s (in my opinion) unlikely motivations.

Heather announces at one tea, that she has met and fallen in love with a man. Oscar lays on a lavish wedding and buys his daughter and her new husband a flat near Marble Arch. His wife Dorrie furnishes the flat with reproduction antiques from Harrods plus the entire kitchen department from the same store. Heather does nothing. Rachel cannot connect with Heather and they barely talk, but still feels compelled to spend every waking moment mentally documenting her.

Heather’s new husband is called Michael. Michael’s father known as The Colonel, buys and sells Spanish property. One night The Colonel phones Rachel and makes suggestive comments. She puts the phone down, and to avoid him phoning her again, spends every evening for the next month walking the streets of London late into the night until it is too late for him to phone. (This is such unrealistic behaviour. A friend of mine, of the same age and at the same time this book was set, was on a tube train in London at night when a man exposed his genitalia to her in a threatening manner. She reacted to this by letting him follow her off the train at the next stop, then turned to chase him down the platform, making sure, at the top of her voice and with considerable laughter, he knew how underwhelming his private parts were.) By contrast, after one unwanted phone call, Rachel avoids her own home, eats in cafes and drinks alone in bars.

This seems like odd behaviour to me, but the author sees the Colonel’s cheeky call as a humongous crime that is best dealt with in this strange negative, avoiding way.

One night Rachel sees Heather’s husband Michael in a bar laughing and joking with a bunch of guys and he acknowledges her with a wink. As he does so, the light catches his eyelids and she sees his blue eye shadow.

This is breaking news. She concludes Heather has married someone with a terrible perversion, and visits her the next day but decides not to tell her. As usual Heather has nothing to say to Rachel and does not even offer her tea. But Rachel realizes from Heather’s extra sullen mood that she must already know about Michael’s sexual deviancy.

It becomes clear soon that Oscar knows, although no-one ever says anything, and soon after, the marriage is annulled and Oscar sends Heather to Venice to stay with Chiara, a friend.

While Heather is away, Dorrie, Heather’s mother becomes ill and finds herself in a private hospital where it is clear there is something very wrong with one of her earlobes. It is red and throbbing. Rachel worries constantly about Heather being away whilst her mother is ill, and visits Dorrie every day for a week to make up for her daughter’s absence.

Then one night Dorrie appears to be close to death and Heather arrives. Dorrie recovers. Rachel feels she can now leave this family to their own devices. But Heather announces she has met someone in Italy – Chiara’s brother. Rachel is furious and tells her that her place is with her mother and that she should just have casual relationships, and not get married again. After all look what happened last time. Heather says she can’t always be with her mother and leaves for Venice to get married.

Oscar and Dorrie miss her and without asking appear to make it clear to Rachel that she must go to Venice and fetch Heather back. Rachel’s deep fear of water makes Venice a challenge. She arrives and has a lonely afternoon in a hotel but takes tea. She then walks the streets of Venice looking for Heather, but is terrified by the canals at every turn. So she leaves a message at the Hotel Gritti where Heather apparently always calls for possible messages. She receives a message in her hotel saying Heather will meet her in a café that afternoon.

Heather shows up wearing black and gives Rachel two extremely heavy carrier bags to take back to her mother in England. She refuses to go back home and disappears into the Italian night having spoken less than two sentences.

Rachel decides to leave the next day with a failed mission, depression and unexpectedly heavy luggage.

Later, Dorrie dies and Heather returns to the UK for the funeral then back to Italy. Oscar lives but is a lonely old man. Rachel realises she has no life and that she has not lived and that Heather had the right idea all along.

Maybe it is apparent; I did struggle with this book. It is not a page-turner in the sense that you simply have to know what happens next, nor for the beauty of its language and expression. The reason I finished the book was because I forced myself to finish it. Anita Brookner has a reputation for understatement, and repressive, introspective, uptight characters. But is that a good enough excuse to write a story about them where nothing they do makes sense, even within their crazy non-eventful lives. Plot is all about motive and the characters in this book lacked believable motive. Therefore the point of the book was completely lost on me. (Unless of course the point of the book was simply one of endurance on the part of the reader. In which case, mission accomplished.)

What was Rachel’s motive for dedicating her life so reluctantly to this family? A sense of duty? What about her sense of duty to Robin and her business? I was left feeling that Anita Brookner lives not only in entirely different circles to the ones I inhabit, but in a different solar system. The sad part is this isn’t trying to be a work of science fiction. Who did Brookner meet that behaved like this? I was in my twenties in the 1980s, working in central London, in the same areas mentioned in this book, and I didn’t meet anyone as barking or as pointless as these characters.

I thought I knew England and the English. I thought I was English.

Comments

  1. Liz Jamieson says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I am amazed that anyone can find this book truly enjoyable.

    I like to read a novel and find something out that I didn’t know before that enhances my life or experience in some way. Or I cannot say the book has a useful purpose. In order for this to happen, the characters must behave in a way that makes sense to me, or the author has to introduce a set of rules so that the reader can make sense of the writing. This didn’t happen for me in this novel. At almost every juncture I found myself asking, “why on earth would she do that?”. The “she” being either the protagonist or the author.

    Some of it was funny – and not (as we used to say in primary school), funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar.

    Anita Brookner chooses Spanish Property Sales as a (second?) career for the Colonel. That was a bit cliched. It was as if Anita had heard such people can be a bit dodgy so thought “Hmmm – how can I imply that the Colonel and his son might be a little shady . . . I know I’ll get them to sell Spanish Property”. When Brookner reaches out into the real world, (as opposed to her own rather strange and limited imaginary world), she gets it wrong.

    Other things that struck me as odd (I’m afraid I don’t have the text with me and can’t be bothered to find an online version of it, so this is from memory), why would someone who cannot handle a predatory phone call from someone she knows have the nerve to fly to and then negotiate Venice alone? Why would the same person leave the comfort of her home to walk the streets of London late at night and sit in bars where, in the 1980s a single young woman alone in a bar would definitely attract similar attention. She could have shut any potential unwanted calls from the Colonel out for the evening by taking the phone off the hook.

    But I have another idea. Rachel’s unbelievable solution to the phone call problem was so because it was utterly contrived. Why? Because Ms Brookner couldn’t find any other way to place blander than bland Rachel in the same type of drinking establishment where cross dressing blokes might hang out.

    Give me Annie Proulx or A.S Byatt any day.

  2. Richard says:

    Firstly I’d like to say that I appreciate this review, the very fact that someone was moved enough to write it means a lot. I’d like to correct a few factual errors though. Rachel is not 25 and is not the same age as Heather. I believe Rachel said she is 32 and Heather is 27.
    Oscar, Heather’s father does not send her to Venice. Heather at this time has gone to Milan for the “collections” and her father has paid for he to extend the stay into a holiday with her friend Chiara in Venice.
    When Heather and Rachel meet in Venice it is at the second meeting that Heather delivers the two bags to be given to Dorrie. This was not intended as a surprise to Rachel as the second meeting was devised for this purpose and I don’t remember the bags as being described as heavy, although, it is apparent from the reviewer’s tone that the personalities and attitudes of all or many of the characters in this novel are so burdensome that one might naturally feel the weight.

    OK. That out of the way, I cannot say whether or not the reviewer actually enjoyed or got much out of the book. I must say that I am a complete Anita Brookner addict, and it seems to me that she could do no wrong. One does wander why Rachel behaves the way she does, why she is so obsessed with the behavior of Heather, and her devotion to the Livingstone family. I’d like to say that Anita’s Brookner’s characters are often deeply flawed, Rachel being no exception. Rachel is as she is because she has no choice, as do all of Brookner’s people, as is the human condition. Rachel has imposed upon herself the mantle of good behavior in exchange for happiness and the avoidance of deep disappointment. She makes the mistake in believing this to be the correct way and does not allow for other ways, unfortunately. Almost all of Anita Brookner’s main characters have chosen the wrong path and come to know it by the end of the books. There is only one book, or perhaps two, that come to mind that have optimistic outcomes, and that is Fraud, most certainly and uncharacteristically, and Lewis Percy.
    One needs a great deal of patience to bear with Rachel and to realize her pain and lack of understanding as she assumes that the others in her life are actually lacking in their relationship to reality.
    As for England, well, there you have me. I am not English, but American. I know that Anita Brookner paints a picture of life that is not wholly recognizable and seems truly anachronistic. I’d like to believe there are a few thoughtful people left in this world and that Anita Brookner has given them life in her fiction. I know I have rambled. Sorry. Just one more thought as to why Rachel is so insistent on converting Heather. In order to justify her sacrificial life she needed to validate it by convincing another of the rightness of her ways. Failing that, and perhaps witnessing that the opposite to be true is, well, sad. Rachel is afraid that other will see her as Poor Rachel, which unfortunately is what she is.