Novel of the week

The Bay of Angels

Anita Brookner <em>Viking, 224pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0670896624

Anita Brookner's latest novel (her 20th in as many years) is, as usual, an exploration of self-restraint, dignity and obligation within a tale of love and loneliness. Brookner's fictional world is strictly demarcated and there are few departures from the subject matter - although, over the years, there have been subtle shifts and a blurring of distinction between the notions of failure, resignation and compromise.

From the first, she has written ironically and sympathetically about women who wait to be both discovered and rescued by love or, more specifically, by a romantic embodiment of love: the Perfect Man. Brookner refers to this enduring myth and shows how prevalent it is, even in post-feminist western society. These patient Griseldas, forever looking out on a world of action, are contrasted with aggressive and successful women who lack a certain moral rectitude. Brookner's heroines - or narrators, as we should simply call them, heroine being too positive and triumphant a word - are typically meek women, observers, outsiders, standard-bearers. They are stoical, silent, always well behaved. Yet they are passionate, too. Often, the love affairs are with married men, whose duplicity is forgiven simply because they are, gloriously, male. The worthy woman longs to be relieved of her dreadful independence. Unmarried, childless but useful in a quiet sense (these women are translators, children's authors, romantic novelists, researchers, librarians), loneliness appears to be the necessary condition of unfettered freedom.

The myth of deliverance and the power of the fairy story occupy centre stage in The Bay of Angels. Narrated by Zoe Cunningham, a woman of indeterminate age and sufficient means, the story is quickly established. She is raised by her widowed mother in a comfortable flat near Sloane Square, central London, until her late adolescence, when her mother meets and marries a kindly, indulgent and apparently wealthy widower. So far, the requirements of the fairy story have been met and Zoe is prepared to accept the happy ending, shuttling between her new home in Nice and the flat she now occupies alone in London.

Tragedy strikes in a grotesque and unlikely fashion, but Zoe is not cast down and thrown upon her inner resources immediately. She is forced to act, impulsively and decisively, and it seems, for a moment, as though an angry and defiant Zoe will break the mould. To balance this swift reversal of fortune and defect of character, Zoe's life quickly becomes marooned and, in common with Brookner's other narrators, there is little she can do to effect change. She is not waiting for deliverance through love, however. She acknowledges, with dread and guilt, that she waits for death.

Much of the novel is taken up with Zoe's devotion to her stricken mother. Unable to cope with any sort of reality, the old woman has retreated from adult responsibility and lives in a home devoted to the care of faded gentility. Zoe's frustrated pity constantly implodes and, set against the white-hot heat of the south of France, there is a nightmarish quality to the descriptions of the passage of time. Unusually, Zoe feels a very real revulsion, always tempered with guilt, as she witnesses her mother's physical decline. The burden of constant visits and the insubstantiality of Zoe's existence (flying between two cities, walking between her lodgings and the nursing home, exiled and isolated) create an intense claustrophobia. The obligatory love story, by contrast, seems grafted on to the central relationship, which exists between Zoe and her mother.

The compromise between love and duty that Zoe acknowledges in the final chapter is a tired one, and her reward is too thin (mostly because the reward himself is too dutiful). But this is a thought-provoking novel, expertly crafted, astute and, above all, humane.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Mandelson