Bonjour Sagesse

Frank Kermode

  • The Last Life by Claire Messud
    Picador, 376 pp, £12.99, August 1999, ISBN 0 330 37563 6

Claire Messud’s first novel, When the World Was Steady, published five years ago, won praise from critics who know what they’re talking about – for example, Penelope Fitzgerald, writing in the LRB. It was a book that showed an easy technical control, an ability to do the things novelists have to do, and in so young a writer these skills were reasonably thought to presage later and more ambitious performances. She seemed to know how all manner of people talked, whether in dull offices and suburban religious groups or in far more exotic settings. Rich racketeers and the petty crooks attending them, people eagerly taking dreary jobs (‘35-hour week at £4.83 an hour’), gay clergymen, they all sounded right. The story of two middle-aged sisters, one staying at home with a formidable mother, the other long since emigrated to Australia but now divorced and wandering about Bali, created all sorts of opportunities.

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