"In her reply she pulled off her nightdress, in a way that shocked
me. Yet she did not seem to be afflicted with any particular
shyness, having evidently forgotten she was an ageing woman
face-to-face with someone who was still intact... For a terrible
moment I thought she might expect me to wash her."
Anita Brookner's newest novel, THE BAY OF ANGELS, stands in sharp
relief to the current rash of chick lit fiction (CONFESSIONS OF A
SHOPAHOLIC, JEMIMA J, and the archetypal chubby girl emerges from
chrysalis as fabulous "It" girl phenomenon yarn BRIDGET JONES'S
DIARY) pouring out of the U. K. Reading Brookner, markedly older in
years and experience, and her staid and chilly reserve is a welcome
cool intermezzo to cleanse the palate after confections whose charm
is both cloying and fleeting. There are no guilty pleasures in THE
BAY OF ANGELS, or even pleasure for that matter.
Zoe Cunningham grows up fatherless in reduced circumstances in
London with a husk of a mother, who hides a debilitating medical
condition behind a life of passivity. Brookner very brusquely lays
down her conceit of life as a fairy tale flawed at its very core.
Unlike some fairy tales where the young heroine's unknown origins
are later revealed to be storied and impressive, Zoe's father is
known to her only as a dim photo of a young undergraduate who later
worked as a librarian. The Cunningham womenfolk only barely manage
to attract a white knight, albeit with feet of clay and a bank
account less flush than they had hoped for or been led to expect.
He is neither handsome nor young.
An older Jewish businessman, Simon brings fleeting comfort to their
lives, only to have his meager flashiness bring their shabby
gentility to better light. He removes Zoe's mother to his deceased
first wife's house in Nice, thereby freeing, in so far as Zoe is
capable of freedom, his new stepdaughter to fall into a horribly
uninteresting love affair with an unimaginative lout. The point of
so-called "romantic" entanglements in Brookner's writing seems to
be to address practical deficits in housing and living allowances.
When Simon succumbs unspectacularly to a fall, Zoe's mother has a
breakdown and drags his lifeless form into bed with her.
Unsurprisingly, Brookner has the doctor deliver the line that
Simon's death is clear in French, "'Il est condamne,
Madame...Voyez-vous, les sphincters se relachent.'"
There are times when Brookner's learned and modulated tones give
the reader a craving for more direct speech. Her crystalline
diction and posing of affected rhetorical questions can leave the
impression that you are in the presence of a grande dame recalling
better times and not a youthful narrator, albeit one drained of id
or impetus towards happiness. Brookner does not simper or indulge
in thoughtless optimism; Zoe asks herself while observing her
mother's recovery from her sleep cure in Nice whether or not her
mother would be better off dead:
"I even wondered whether there were any way of making my fears ---
or were they wishes? --- known to those in charge, and whether or
not they would regard me as an unnatural daughter, or simply as one
who recognized the necessity of solutions."
Her mother incapacitated, Zoe must sort through the rather modest
effects left to her mother and learns of various unpleasantries in
the process. The whole driving force in this drama is that of fate
and the necessity of stoically going through the motions, if only
to save face.
Zoe's mother conveniently expires quietly, and her daughter manages
to achieve a stilted quasi intimacy with her mother's former
doctor. Brookner's follow up to her Booker Prize winning book,
HOTEL DU LAC, is neither sexy, fun nor flirty but it is worth
Reviewed by Patricia Howard on January 21, 2011
The Bay of Angels