Look at Me, by Anita Brookner

This early novel by Brookner is about Frances Hinton, a not-young woman who works in the reference library of a medical research institute and does not like to be called Fanny. Her life is a lonely one, lightened only by her friend and co-worker Olivia, a woman who is never discomposed. Frances says that “Problems of human behavior still continue to baffle us, but at least in the Library we have them properly filed.” She shares with us the antics of the regular patrons of the library, including reticent Dr. Simek and the blowsy Mrs. Halloran.

Then there's Nick Fraser. “‘That,' says Mrs. Halloran heavily after every other one of Nick's disruptive visits to the Library, ‘is one hell of a man.'” Nick and his wife Alix are a lively, charming couple who add a new dimension to Frances's life by unexpectedly taking her up, inviting her to dinner and other outings with them. They call her Little Orphan Fanny and carelessly bring her into their circle of friends.

For Frances, it is more than their charm and brilliant sheen that attract her; she wants to learn how to be selfish. She says that she never wants to be loved by the sort of men who loved her mother: “kind, shy, easily damaged.” She says, “In a way I prefer them to be impervious, even if it means they are impervious to me.” Later she says, “I needed to know that not everyone carries a wound and that this wound bleeds intermittently throughout life.” Yet the title betrays a fundamental human need that cannot be ignored.

The premise for this story seemed a familiar one to me, having recently read A Note in Music, by Rosamond Lehmann, where lonely Grace's life is similarly changed by the entrance of a glamorous and carelessly chic couple. As in that novel, I found deep satisfaction in the deliberate development of characters who side-stepped my preconceptions, surprising and delighting me.

As always with Brookner, the joy is in the details. We gradually get to know Frances and the people in her small canvas, layers built up gradually with a fine brush. I have long been a fan of Brookner's work, ever since Christine gave me a copy of Hotel du Lac several decades ago. This novel seems to me one of her best; certainly it moved me profoundly and I will not soon forget it.

What is your favorite Brookner novel?

On Thin Ice: Short Stories of Life and Dating After 50, by Johanna van Zanten

The title is a bit misleading since these linked short stories about a woman named Adrienne start when she is 28. However, they do follow her into her 50s, and they are about finding love and finding a place for herself in the world. And I do mean the world. It's refreshing to read stories set in locales ranging from Amsterdam to the south of France to Canada's Northwest Territories.

What I've learned from participating in critique groups and my poetry discussion group, as well as from writing this blog, is how very different people's tastes are, and even how different mine are depending on my mood and the circumstances. Sometimes I want an exciting thriller; sometimes a puzzle to work out. But sometimes I want something less challenging. The easy flow of van Zanten's narrative was the perfect thing for a long day of travel, changing flights and enduring layovers in listless airports.

As I say, the narrative flow is good, and the voice interesting, if mild. The stories contain some unusual events such as a canoe trip on the mighty McKenzie River to attend a Native American pow wow. But mostly the stories catalogue the ups and downs of an ordinary life: love found and lost, the death of a parent, difficulties with teenaged children. I particularly enjoyed the humorous story about Adrienne's adventures with starting a matchmaking business.

There is a curious evenness of tone which under other circumstances might not have held my attention, but provided the restful interludes I needed during that long, difficult day. The lack of strong dramatic ups and downs building to a climax in part comes from the preponderance of narration. The stories are narrated in a calm and assured voice, with a few half-scenes (narration interrupted with some lines of dialogue). Where there are fully dramatised scenes, they tend to be mostly dialogue without the actions and reactions that ratchet up the dramatic emotion. Actions, as the cliché goes, speak louder than words.

To understand the difference between narration and scene, consider Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie where Tom stands at the edge of the stage narrating the story, and then he stops and is silent while Laura, her mother, and the Gentleman Caller actually act out a scene. The percentage of narration to scene has changed over time. Lengthy narrative passages are common in the 19th century novels I grew up on. These days, perhaps due to the influence of movies, most novels tend to minimize narration and go from scene to scene. The writer's challenge is to find the correct balance of narration, scene, and half-scene for the particular story she is telling.

Although at first I was disconcerted by the absence of the dramatic structure I've come to expect, this collection of stories turned out to be the ideal thing for me on that particular day, and I enjoyed the quietly intelligent voice accompanying me on my travels.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Prospero's Daughter, by Elizabeth Nunez

As the title declares, this novel retells the story of The Tempest. Set in 1961 on Trinidad and the small island of Chacachacare off its coast, Prospero's Daughter portrays the intersection of a handful of lives as England's empire withdraws. Assistant commissioner, John Mumsford, has come to Trinidad because as a white man and an Englishman he can live the life of a lord that his middle-class birth could not provide at home. Change is in the air, though, with calls for independence, and Mumsford is not certain he can trust his Trinidadian commissioner, whose white skin does not preclude the African blood most people assume runs in the veins of Trinidad's French Creoles.

Mumsford is sent to Chacachacare to investigate an alleged rape of a white girl by her black servant, the Englishman's worst nightmare. But he has also received a note from Ariana, the other servant in the household, who says that there was no rape and that the two are in love. The household is run by Peter Gardner, a disgraced and reclusive scientist, who came out from England with his young daughter, Virginia, several years earlier. He took over the house from Carlos, then a young, newly orphaned boy, claiming that he had bought it from the dying servant who had been caring for Carlos and the servant girl, Ariana. The only other inhabitants of the island are a small leper colony and a doctor who serves them.

In secret the educated Carlos calls Gardner by the magician's name because, like Prospero, Gardner has used his botanical knowledge to create a world of his own, with grass that does not need watering and polka-dotted flowers. To make space for this fragment of England made even better by his successful experiments, he has destroyed the native habitat, cutting down the fruit trees planted by Carlos's father and taming the terrifying jungle to remain at a safe distance.

I was recently in St. Croix where the native trees were cut down to create sugar plantations, plantations that failed when the bottom dropped out of the sugar market. I'd never thought of The Tempest in terms of ecology, but of course it is the story of an outsize ego believing that his power is absolute; he can do whatever he wants on his island. But we are not islands, and the outside world intrudes. As we have learned, the effects of ecological disasters are not limited to the area where they occur.

This story is enthralling, keeping me up nights to finish it. Nunez's descriptions are gorgeous, evoking the tangled beauty of the island, the cold precision of Gardner's house, the delicate carvings of birds and flowers made by Carlos's father. The relationship between Carlos and Virginia is delicately traced, believable and sweet. Brave Ariana is the one my heart aches for, but it is Mumsford who most interests me. He may start the story as a rigidly prejudiced and fearful Englishman, but he reveals unexpected strengths. Like its precursor, this is a story about power, the power of knowledge, the power of love, the power of courage, the power of integrity. It brilliantly brings out the relationship of power to class and race buried in Shakespeare's play.

Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark

Who knew a book about a group of elderly people contemplating death could be so funny? Dame Lettie Colston is the first to start receiving the phone calls from a mysterious stranger who says, “Remember you must die.” She's a managing sort of woman who spends a lot of time changing her will. She suspects her nephew of making the calls to get his inheritance quicker, so she cuts him out. Then she suspects the retired Inspector she's hired to investigate the calls, so she cuts him out of her will too.

At that point her brother, Godfrey, starts getting the calls, as do other friends. One of them, Alec, has made a lifelong study of aging, taking meticulous, cross-referenced notes on his subjects: friends and family, expecting to learn the secrets to staying young. He especially likes tracking the progress of Godfrey's wife, Charmian, as her dementia waxes and wanes. He also likes to stir up trouble, especially if he can check the person's pulse and blood pressure before and after.

They all visit Miss Taylor, Charmian's former maid, who in spite of having the most common sense has been reduced by advanced age and disability to residing in a public ward for elderly women. They are all addressed as “Granny” and treated as though mentally incompetent. Some of them are, but not Miss Taylor. Her reaction to the calls, when Dame Lettie consults her, is that she should ignore them. She says, “‘Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and dying as on a battlefield.'”

The calls continue as the various characters pursue their goals, whether it's getting the new Ward Sister transferred or indulging in blackmail. In the course of their activities, secrets from their past trickle out. Although I laughed, I did come to care about these friends and enemies who are in the last stages of waiting for the up elevator. I hadn't read any of Sparks's books except The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie back in my teens, but am now inspired to go back and look them up. Sparks herself passed away in 2006.