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.