Monday, October 28, 2013

Reading Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner is the latest in the string of authors I've read as a direct result of encountering them through other bloggers. Brookner doesn't seem to be quite as widely or loudly praised as, say, Barbara Pym or Muriel Spark, but over the years I've noticed at least a few quiet but ardent admirers of her work, of which there is an impressive amount to choose from. Although her most famous novel is Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker Prize, Brookner has been prolific from the 1980s to the present. The first novel of hers that I picked up was A Friend From England, purely by chance of coming across a copy at a used book sale.

A Friend From England is told from the perspective of Rachel Kennedy, a Londoner in her early-thirties who is part owner of a bookshop. She befriends her accountant, Oscar, who had known Rachel's father, and is soon drawn into his family's circle. With no living relatives of her own, Rachel prides herself on being independent and progressive, yet she finds herself drawn to the conventional family dynamic that Oscar and his wife provide over the course of regular weekly visits. She's happy to be drawn into their world, yet finds herself at odds with Oscar's twenty-something daughter, whose perspective of marriage and family seems to be drastically different from Rachel's own.

A Friend from England is the kind of book that gradually engrosses the reader. Its action is subtle, with much of it occurring within Rachel's mind, but the character portraits are so richly drawn that I was completely captivated by the end of the book. Upon finishing I immediately wanted to read more of Bookner's work, so I headed to the library where I found Falling Slowly, in which we meet Beatrice and Miriam Sharpe, two middle aged sisters who have both faced disappointments in their lives. While Beatrice deals with hers by withdrawing from life and becoming more solitary, Miriam begins to act in uncharacteristic ways. Their relationship and their individual lives come to a turning point when Beatrice faces a health issue. Falling Slowly is another novel that builds up gradually. It gets off to an even slower start than A Friend From England does, and it stagnates in that slow pace for a longer time. I had to push myself to keep reading for much of it, but I did eventually hit a certain point where the development of the characters hit its full stride and made me eager to read on. 

After reading two of Brookner's novels practically back to back, I'm left feeling intrigued by her work, but in need of a change of pace from it in the immediate future. I like the way she dissects the unexpected inner lives of her characters. In some ways, they are very similar to the types of people Pym writes about, although her overall effect is much less cozy and more psychologically probing, as if she set out to give the Henry James treatment to some of Pym's "excellent women". Her sentences are certainly dense and long enough to rival those of James. Overall, I think her novels are best for when you're in the mood to get lost in rich language and characterization, but they can easily prove frustrating when you're in more of a mood to quickly move from one book to the next.

Have you read any of Anita Brookner's work? Do you have any recommendations for a novel of hers I should try the next time I'm in the mood for a slower-paced read?


  1. I think she wrote Hotel du Lac, a book I remember enjoying. I would like to read more by her. So glad you wrote about her today!



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