Book Review: Love's labours lost - in an academic sense

Undue Influence by Anita Brookner Viking, pounds 16.99, 220pp; Susie Boyt admires a chilling study of thwarted youth
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The Independent Culture
ANITA BROOKNER's supreme talent lies in her ability to combine - with a remarkably robust delicacy - things that are very quiet with things that are absolutely extreme. The women in her novels often feel limited by the patterns of their lives, which they never quite intended but whose saving routines have grown thick around them. We have come to associate these arrangements of restraint and longing with characters nearing the ends of their lives, so it is particularly interesting that Claire Pitt, heroine of Undue Influence, is only 29. We catch her at a point in her life where the structures of brave solitude are beginning to take form around her, but have not yet set.

Claire is only dimly aware that she is at some sort of crossroads, following her mother's death. Somehow she is not wholly convinced by the facts of her life, and there lurks an idea that things might easily be very different, if she only decides so. She spends much of her time making up stories about people she meets: academics who come into the bookshop where she works, or the man she sees in a local cafe.

There is a provisional quality to everything in Claire's life. She is always trying things out in her head, and the few relationships she does have often seem more to do with investigation than intimacy.

But the realities of her life swiftly sharpen when she decides to take matters in hand. She seduces an academic, Martin Gibson, whom she meets in her shop, although she knows he does not think the world of her. The grim truth of being involved with someone to whom you scarcely matter - that looming sense of what you are not allowed to hope for, or even to say - is brilliantly realised. Claire dreams of an ardent admirer, and has visions of dazzling femaleness, but how these thoughts could translate into her own life she does not know.

When her employment ends abruptly, there is nothing provisional about her loneliness, which is shown as devastating. Painfully, we view Claire attempting to prolong a conversation with an unwilling acquaintance in Selfridges, admiring her companion's shopping, touting the idea of coffee being drunk at a subsequent meeting. She is shocked to recognise how low her morale is, how infinite her capacity for sadness might be, and how angry she is with her world.

The scorn with which she remembers her colourless father is touched on lightly, but is a motivating force. Her anger expresses itself in odd ways: she experiences a jolt of triumph when she thinks how lonely Martin makes her feel, because it must prove he is a complete failure as a paramour.

The book ends at an extremely low moment, but there is the dimmest suggestion that now Claire has been stripped of almost every support to her life. Her only choice is to rebuild a more satisfactory one. To come unstuck when you are nearly 30 is, after all, a very different story to reaching a crisis at 60, when the binds of an unhappy life are stretching tighter and tighter.