Rachel and Heather

Stephen Wall

  • A Friend from England by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 205 pp, £9.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 224 02443 4
  • The New Confessions by William Boyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 462 pp, £11.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 241 12383 6
  • The Colour of Blood by Brian Moore
    Cape, 182 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 224 02513 9

Anita Brookner’s novels have been preoccupied with women who feel themselves to be profoundly separate. This may be the result of either choice or necessity, or of stoically making a choice of necessity. They are often tempted to alleviate this solitariness by falling in love with a man or attaching themselves to a couple or a family, but this usually ends in recoil and failure. When Miss Brookner is not at her best, the gestures that this despondent view of things demand can seem sentimental, especially when fortitude is subsidised by elegance or at least comfort and by financial independence. In A Friend from England, however, one is left in no doubt that life really is hostile to happiness, even in Wimbledon. It resembles Miss Brookner’s Look at me (1981) in that it develops a moral and emotional intensity that precludes any modification of the heroine’s terminal loneliness. The finesse with which the new novel is organised makes the prize-winning Hotel du Lac look flimsy, although its materials will be entirely familiar to addicted followers.

Anita Brookner’s heroines tend to be bookish – academics, writers, librarians – and it’s no surprise that Rachel, the narrator of A Friend from England, is part-owner of a Notting Hill bookshop and a reader of Stendhal; her first novel A Start in Life (1981) took its title from Balzac and had a heroine whose life was ‘ruined by literature’. Nor is Rachel unusual in feeling a strong attraction towards people for whom comfort is more important than culture. In her case, the soothing solidity of the bourgeois is embodied in the mutually devoted Livingstones and their unnervingly contented daughter Heather. Despite being an accountant, Oscar Livingstone has won a very large sum on the pools, and this enables him to give his family every luxury that a conventional middle-class imagination can conceive. They take to their wealth as to an oddly onerous duty; frequent use of the Harrods account seems like an obligation. Rachel is welcomed to their home, and it comes to be felt that Rachel’s advanced worldliness will be useful to the sheltered Heather. One of the novel’s successes is the way in which the Livingstones’ transparent innocence and goodness are unpatronisingly conveyed. Their domesticity may be ‘engulfing’ (which is part of the attraction for the parentless Rachel) but their simplicity is ‘Biblical’, and remarkably the epithet doesn’t seem absurd, despite the deep sofas, huge ashtrays and shag-pile carpets. Miss Brookner’s sharp eye for decor has always been a resource.

Although Heather runs successfully enough the boutique her parents have given her to play with, at home she remains impenetrably placid. Initially she reminds us of the rich daughter staying with her protective mother at the Hotel du Lac, but here the novelist gives herself far more room to explore what lies behind a comparably enigmatic opacity. In fact, Rachel’s progressive discovery of Heather’s true calibre and the finally devastating effect of that on her own sense of self provides the novel’s momentum. The story develops into a kind of contest between them.

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