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Books: Romantic revelations as she lay dying

Mary Flanagan encounters the New England nobs and admires a lyrical turn from an elegant stylist; Evening by Susan Minot Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99, 264pp
EVENING IS Susan Minot's fifth book and by far her most expansive and ambitious. Her protagonist, Ann Lord, is described by a friend as "like any other woman only more stylish". She grew up in the late 1950s before feminism, sexual liberation and radical politics had transformed American society. Despite three marriages and five children, she has lived a life of comfort and privilege centered on maternity, houses, cocktail parties, golf clubs, holidays and clothes. She confesses to having "let men take over my life many times", paying the price of social and financial security.

Now 65 and a widow, she is dying of cancer in her elegant Cambridge house, her son and three daughters in anxious and irritated attendance. There are bedside visits from old friends and a trusted nurse to administer injections.

Ann lies helpless, overwhelmed alternately by pain and her teeming hallucinogenic memories. Gradually she disengages from her familiar surroundings, amazed to discover that the review of one's life which accompanies dying is not a linear progression but a "snowfall of images".

Her most vivid memory is of a weekend in Maine 40 years before when she was a bridesmaid at her best friend's lavish wedding. There she met and fell passionately in love with the dazzling Harris Arden, both choosing to ignore the imminent arrival of Maria, his fog-bound fiancee.

The account of their brief affair is quite mesmerising, though it can sail queasily close to Mills and Boon. This isn't the minimalist Minot. However, she more than compensates with a new lyricism, a broadened scope and the brilliant management of a complex structure.

Vintage has just reissued her earlier books to coincide with Evening. In Monkeys, her first novel, she proved herself an acute observer of family dynamics. The novel is lean and edgy, full of stinging insights and free of authorial excursions. It's point of view is fresh and close-up.

Lust, however, is urban and cynical. These stories of self-destructive young women tell of good fortune squandered and freedom badly used. Folly, a clever if tepid period piece with pretentions to Edith Wharton, is a kind of dress rehearsal for Evening.

Both novels involve rich Bostonians whose exclusive milieu admits no rebels, eccentrics, artists, members of the working class: no one who has had to struggle with much of anything besides their own emotions.

Minot is keenly aware of the tacit pressures exerted by the group upon the individual. Both Ann, and Lillian in Folly, bravely flap their wings, but in the end they choose safety over authenticity, becoming imprisoned in the codes of their class.

At 25, Ann is bright and genuine, if somewhat naive, aspiring to independence and untainted by hypocrisy. She also has a lovely voice but stops singing as she grows older.

She senses that something precious has been lost, her soul, perhaps, her true self. The group wins. The self is banished or buried and then forgotten. Both heroines lapse into conformity, not so much unhappy as unrealised.

Ann associates Harris with the discovery of that self, though he is lost forever at the very moment he becomes hers. Nobly or foolishly, she releases him, while the reader is given a more objective glimpse of his character. Is his inability to leave Maria motivated by loyalty or secret relief?

Minot is particularly good on the evocative power of objects. She is rhapsodic without losing control of her formal elements and Evening is a beautifully plaited and convincing whole. Memory fragments are intercut with the wedding story and present suffering with imagined exchanges with Harris. Ann's internal litanies are reminiscent of her abandoned Catholicism and of William Faulker's streams of consciousness. Faulkner also provides the epigraph, directing us to another who once lay dying.

Initially, Minot's new lyricism seems too genteel and the privilege she affects to disparage is rendered very seductively.

Yet her poetic style lends import to the trivial and transitory and to what would otherwise be a shallow life. It allows her into previously unexplored human territories, and to a condition of benign nihilism, in which nothing is without significance, though the significance is impossible to define.

When her daughter asks who is the Harris of her mother's ravings, Ann answers, "Harris is myself". She was fully alive in his embrace as she is fully alive in her final moments. The two experiences are similarly described. That "true self" that she had forgotten or assumed that he had lost is recaptured and restored, on the very brink of its annihilation.