Liza Jarrett’s Hard Life

Paul Driver

  • The Death of the Body by C.K. Stead
    Collins, 192 pp, £9.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 00 223067 4
  • Kramer’s Goats by Rudolf Nassauer
    Peter Owen, 188 pp, £10.50, August 1986, ISBN 0 7206 0659 4
  • Mefisto by John Banville
    Secker, 234 pp, £9.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 436 03266 X
  • The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker
    Virago, 284 pp, £9.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 86068 606 X
  • Love Unknown by A.N. Wilson
    Hamish Hamilton, 202 pp, £9.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 241 11922 7

Of the five new novels grouped here, only one, I think, breathes something of that ‘air of reality (solidity of specification)’ which seemed to Henry James ‘the supreme virtue of a novel – the merit on which all its other merits ... helplessly and submissively depend’. Unfortunately, that one – Pat Barker’s The Century’s Daughter – is also a consciously ‘working-class’ fiction whose claim to reality-status might be found off-puttingly vehement. Still, her book, risking as it does a limiting categorisation and, inescapably, a caricaturing treatment of its subject, is the only one of the five which, making a serious attempt on reality, takes the reader completely seriously: the latter, in this instance, is never someone who is merely ‘in on something’, and his intelligence is never insulted. I don’t want to call the book a masterpiece: it isn’t that – but at least it is more a work of art than a disappearing act.

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