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Undue Influence
Anita Brookner

Undue Influence
Anita Brookner
Hamish Hamilton
London 1999
0670 886378

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Another year, another Brookner novel. Her nineteenth novel over the past two decades finds her once again exploring the barren landscapes of the London W1 middle-classes. The persistence with which Brookner plots this territory would have exhausted the wit of many other novelists by now, but it is a tribute to her art that she still performs with vigour and variety within such circumscribed limits.

The narrator, Claire Pitt, is on the threshold of her thirties and lives alone in a mansion flat in west London. In her examination of her current predicament, she expresses the banal fatalism that is almost obligatory in Brookner’s lead character. Claire disposes of her family in the most matter-of-fact terms. She naturally had a problematic relationship with her father: “I was glad when he died. I objected to him on aesthetic grounds.” And her mother was too predictable to be of much interest: “My mother’s life was a straight line from her cradle to what was now her grave Her death was like her life: modest, self-effacing.”

The odour of decay and death permeates the narrative, reinforced by the remorseless decline of the two elderly sisters who employ Claire to look after their second hand bookshop and the imminent death of Cynthia Gibson, who acts as a conduit for the romantic interest in the novel. A doomed relationship ensues between Claire and Martin Gibson, a handsome though typically insecure and unworldly University don. Only Wiggy, Claire’s sole friend, pursues any kind of life in the real world, but her affair with a married man suggests that she too is destined to be abandoned and left alone.

All this is related in conventional Brookner style with a weighty dependence on the interior monologue. For those not used to continual pages of unbroken type, this can be intimidating. When dialogue arrives, it is so sparely constructed that it is empty of any character inflections or mannerisms. However, when taken together this technique is remarkably effective in communicating the attenuated experience of the characters as a whole. “Everything is connected” Claire assures the reader on more than one occasion, but the irony is that these characters fail to connect, with one another and with the world. It is this penetrating and sophisticated depiction of a world barely relieved of disappointment and rejection that places Brookner in the front rank of English novelists writing today.

Reviewed by Robert Whitehouse


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