BOOK REVIEW / There's no time like the past: A family romance by Anita Brookner Cape pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THE FIRST surprise is the date. You read through the opening pages of A Family Romance naturally assuming, from the maids and hired chauffeurs, the high respect paid to the tea-table and the stifling sobriety of manners, that this must be London in the Forties or Fifties. You even half-expect a peasouper to descend. And then it's disclosed: this is 1969. Oh really?

The sense of time-warp persists throughout, and the surprise recurs whenever the novel introduces some contemporary detail to remind itself that it is, in fact, set in the Seventies and Eighties. It's a strange effect, as if an older story were being sporadically updated.

You can try to make sense of it. Our heroine and narrator is Jane, born in roughly 1965, but a girl perhaps out of her time; and the book offers a pained but firm apology for the single life she finally determines upon, though conscious that celibacy is not quite the honourable estate it once may have been. But I don't think that history is actually the issue. It's rather that, whatever the calendar says, Anita Brookner is carrying on undeterred. She is setting out her old archetypes in a slightly different arrangement, and they are as 'timeless' as any in a more hot-blooded romance. The moral universe is divided between the decent and the indecent with almost comical severity. Decent, chiefly, are Jane and her parents, the Mannings. Jane enjoys a sheltered childhood in a Battersea mansion block. Tea is quietly drunk, books are quietly read, music is quietly listened to. Her parents are thin (another mark of virtue) and their marriage, she is sure, is 'untainted by any gross manifestation of sexuality'. She is happy. Enter the beast.

The family is burdened with a foreign relation, Aunt Dolly, who wears scent and tight dresses, plays bridge and (though in her forties) seeks men. The monster is described as having 'shortish legs and a full bosom, the whole thing reined in and made impregnable by some kind of hidden structure. I was aware, too, of a sense of heat . . .' It is practically the jungle. Dolly - 'greedy', 'primitive', an 'animal' - patronises and shamelessly sponges off the Mannings (who pay up with a sigh of pity) and she torments Jane over her lack of burgeoning femininity - 'Charm, Jane, charm]'

All might yet be well, but the parents die and for one catastrophic Christmas Jane is thrown into the company of Dolly and her ghastly set, forced to savour the needy degradation of people with sex lives. Nothing happens, but a view is enough. She retreats into her 'single state and the silence of my little room', does an extra-mural degree, and becomes a successful children's author. She has much to teach: 'what they learn then may save them from being duped in later life.'

It's true that the first-person treatment allows that it may only be a character study, and there's no doubt that Brookner captures this personality perfectly. The voice, prim and fastidious, sounds the pure tones of uncomplaining goodness, never far from priggishness and distaste, given occasionally to not very charitable imaginings of her aunt's unfortunate amours ('His love-making would no doubt be expert'). But, as no other perspective is conceded even by implication, one is forced to conclude that this is a character we're asked not only to believe in, but to believe.

All the facts are pointed in a single direction. For Jane, and also for the reader, the desperate aunt is the only available model of an outgoing emotional life. Men are either impossibly uptight, like Dad's friend from the bank (another of the decent, a man of 'the utmost reserve'), or flash bastards like Dolly's boyfriend. On the other hand, in a moral tale which so much invites one's assent, most of the crucial points are unsubstantiated.

Jane's own liaisons - she's had a few, she mentions suddenly - are dismissed in three sentences; no details, but they did not do. For several pages she encounters feminists with 'sharing' relationships, but that flat and rational prospect won't do either - it is Dolly, she decides, with her 'archaic longings', never to be fulfilled, who represents the true Fate of Woman. (Equally brisk, there's a final rapprochement with Dolly: now old, lonely and disappointed, she is a fit object for Jane's love).

A great deal of the book's argument is hurried through, to leave Jane, only in her late twenties remember, settled on what her whole life's course must be, though not pretending to like it. And here the time-warp factor turns from eccentricity to special pleading; not a matter of period, simply of age. It is an older voice that speaks with this dire conviction, a bad fairy godmother. But, of course, the Brookner doctrine - the painful destiny of all the virtuous - sounds considerably more impressive if foisted on to a younger one. Miserablist propaganda, but happily not too persuasive.

(Photograph omitted)