BOOK REVIEW / Room at the top: 'The Tenancy' - Eva Figes: Sinclair-Stevenson, 14.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EVA FIGES's previous novel - a series of inflamed monologues delivered by John Milton's daughter - illuminated the present through a particular examination of the past. In Figes's current attempt to look into the (imminent?) future, Edith Johnson clings to impoverished gentility on the top floor of a crumbling house she shares with assorted 'types' - kind-hearted single parent and well-mannered son; butch PE instructor; cashmere-cardiganed old busybody fallen on hard times. Having at last dispatched her whining, imperious mother to a home, Edith looks forward to picking up the threads of freedom. Instead, the fabric of her world rapidly disintegrates when the house is unexpectedly sold and the tenants subjected to seemingly arbitrary acts of terror.

The novel's disembodied air situates us in fableland. Characters speak without quotation marks and slip out of focus when not required. We don't know how Edith funds her meagre existence, in which city she lives, or why a new owner should resort to terror tactics to reclaim a building that would soon fall down of its own accord. None of these niggles would matter if we were able to suspend disbelief and accept The Tenancy on its own terms as a spare, well-written and reasonably compelling story of individual distress. But as a projection of social collapse it is curiously old-fashioned, relying for its bogyman on a shadowy 1950s-type Rachmanism applied to the genteel poor who must also submit to the indignities of civic collapse: uncollected garbage; standpipes in the streets; vicious dogs and their snake-tattooed, head-butting owners; and emergency services that respond (if at all) with fresh-faced rookies who can't even control their Adam's apples.