BOOK REIVEW / Sympathy for the bedevilled: 'Fraud' - Anita Brookner: Cape, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THE DESIRE to kick Anita Brookner's heroines is always strong, and Anna Durrant, the latest in the long line of Brookner's tight-lipped, clean- fingered women, is no exception. The floppy masochism with which she allows her not-very-sick mother to commandeer her life, and the exquisite by-ways of her loneliness after her mother's death are all the more irritating for being compounded of a good deal of laziness and self-aggrandisement: the rest of us, coarse-grained creatures, are just not good enough for her.

True, Anna has led a dull and (we are repeatedly told) virginal little life, baking tea-cakes in a claustrophobic flat with Amy, her fluffy, iron- whimmed mother. And Brookner is ready for our reaction: she teases us, even, with this unnecessary waste of life, reminding us that her heroine is healthy, intelligent, well-enough off not to have to work, tiny, trimly dressed, has surprising red hair and 'a mouth too wide for anything like beauty'. Hardly a necessary object of pity.

But when Amy dies, and Anna's appalling new freedom reaches its nadir in a solitary Christmas ('This day would end, like all the others, and she would look back in pity at the person who had endured it'), we can't refuse our sympathy any longer.

As contrasting studies in female solitude, Brookner gives us Vera Marsh and her daughter Philippa. Both are widowed; both are large women with reddened cheeks, wiry hair, big hands. They wrestle with being alone, and ageing, and hating it - but they have children and love affairs; they drink and eat and smoke; they are open and ramshackle where Anna is closed and precise. They find her annoying, they pity her, but they sometimes need her.

And men? Well, as a solution to the terrors of loneliness, men are a wash- out, this book says. One way or another, they abandon you - either by dying (like most of the husbands) or by taking your money and doing a runner (like the charming con-man Amy fell for and even, disastrously and briefly, married); or like the weak and handsome doctor whom Amy believes will marry Anna. They could have been happy, Anna is sure, but (Brookner is clever about the arrogance of the shy) he failed, too: he was not special enough to see how special she was - until it was too late, and he was snapped up by Vicky with the brassy voice and the shoulder-pads.

So Brookner piles up the evidence against her dislikeable heroine, urging us to find her as tiresome as the rest of the world does. Then she plays with us, forcing us to bestow pity and understanding, and certainly respect, before whisking it away again. And the novel, which opens with a slightly clumsy 'mystery' about Anna's apparent disappearance, ends in a way which is intended, I suppose, to be optimistic. Its title is explained by Anna, who meets Philippa by chance in Paris, just before they both stride off to ever more courageous forms of solitude. 'Fraud was what was perpetrated on me by the expectations of others. They fashioned me in their own image, according to their needs,' Anna says, and it is the one thing in the book that rings completely untrue.