Books: Tinkling tea cups and toxic waste

Twentysomething love in London may be their theme, but Anita Brookner's a genius, and A A Gill is pure filth
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Undue Influence

by Anita Brookner

Viking pounds 16.99

The time is now, the place is London, and Claire, heroine of Anita Brookner's latest novel, is 29. Here's how she talks: "I suppose it is difficult for women of my generation to trust other women, now that a certain loucheness of behaviour has become de rigueur. Loucheness involves betrayal, but that no longer seems to matter; we are all merry adventurers now. I was one myself."

It might have been hard, even 20 years ago in the dustiest provincial town, to find a 29-year-old who could give such a stiff, haltingly fusty account of herself. In the London of the late Nineties, the idea is laughable.

So why does Brookner - one of our finest, most sophisticated and complex writers - remain oblivious to such social unlikelihoods? All I can say is, if you enjoy her work as I do, you begin to let her off. And perhaps she's earned such lenience. She is such a uniquely clever and candid chronicler of human passion - sexual, emotional, intellectual - that it begins to seem both futile and pernickety to go on about her small inconsistencies.

Claire has always lived with her mother (in Brooknerland they often do), who has just died. You would have to be a stranger to Brookner's work to be surprised when Claire states that her own life has so far "been spent watching rather than in taking part". Equally, her passive assertion when left with the flat in Frontage Mansions that "I shall keep everything as she left it, since I have nowhere else to go" is hardly a revelation.

If Claire lived around the corner from you, you'd know exactly why she didn't have a man. This maddening limpness, this inability to take life by the throat, is exactly why, at 29, she still lives with her parents' furniture and an empty bed.

So it's a huge tribute to Brookner's powers of characterisation that, though she can't quite stop you thinking such a thing, she can, within a page or two, stop you minding. You fall for this spinster-in- the-making, finding yourself intent upon her destiny. You begin to see the world as Claire sees it, until her hesitations and her lonelinesses seem almost normal. Really good novels chip away at your world-view, leaving you changed and flushed and uncertain.

This one - like much of Brookner's work - is about the tension between the possibility of company and the longing for aloneness. But mostly it's just about loneliness. Claire works in the basement of a second- hand bookshop run by elderly sisters. It's not a great place to meet a man. In fact you can hear yourself telling her she should get out more. But then in comes Martin: blonde, middle-aged and with a penchant for the German Romantics - and a bedridden wife at home.

This wife, flirty, blowsy, pink-cheeked and attention craving, is a definite Brookner type. You sense that she managed to marry simply because she's ruthless. The implication, darkly hinted at, is that she does something in bed that keeps a man like Martin in her clutches even though she's not very nice to him. You long to know what it is.

Claire and her one girl friend, Wiggy, with whom she always dines on a Saturday night (another great way to get a man) begin to visit the wife out of duty and curiosity. When she suddenly dies, they don't know what they feel: shock, sorrow, sympathy - or interest in Martin's sudden availability.

All of Brookner's novels are great, but this is one of the best. To describe the bare framework does her no justice, because all of the body, the fibre - even the frequent gags - are so wondrously internal, part of the shifting soul of her protagonist. If her characters tend to be hesitant, her treatment of them is quite the reverse. She shows a daring which she rarely gets credit for. Few writers expose the deepest, queasiest inner workings of the heart and mind as she does, let alone with so much energy and truthfulness and panache.

She has a fantastic ability to juxtapose events. When the woman who lives above Wiggy dies unexpectedly in her sleep, both girls are shaken. The death seems so haphazard, so lonely and brutal. The most moving moment in the book is when Claire, feeling sad during an especially lacklustre dinner with Martin, suddenly has a vision of "Eileen Bateman ... her valiant legs pedalling through morose villages, and I knew that I was on her side."

The image is oddly startling, oddly terrible and seems to crystallise everything Claire feels at that point. You understand, but you could not possibly describe it in any words other than Brookner's own.

This, surely, is a definition of great writing. It makes me feel that Brookner - though acclaimed - deserves more excitement, more rapture from us. Hotel du Lac and the Booker Prize were a long time ago, and it's not her fault if she has bloomed equally brightly every year without fail. I think we're taking her for granted if we don't jump up and celebrate this book right now.