BOOK REVIEW / Escape into a dark and dangerous street: 'Fraud' - Anita Brookner: Cape, 12.95

EVER SINCE her first novel appeared in 1980, Anita Brookner has produced a new book for publication in the last week of August every year. Small, but perfectly formed, her novels usually chart the melancholy lives of middle-aged, middle-class women (and occasionally men). As she wrote in the Independent two years ago: 'my main concern is with ruminative introspective characters . . . I perceive worlds in the view through a suburban window.'

Fraud, her 12th novel in 12 years, apparently conforms to everything that one has learnt to expect. The heroine, Anna Durrant, is a 50-year-old spinster who lives alone after devoting her life to the care of her widowed mother. When her mother dies, she tries to remain cheerful; she performs good deeds and still lives in hope of finding a husband. But she exists in an uncaring world, a 'mean dirty London' where the air is damp and autumn leaves float through silent, empty streets.

Very few people know her; even fewer seem to care. Like Jane Austen, Anita Brookner creates apparently unloved heroines who can then be loved by large numbers of kindly readers. Mrs Marsh, an elderly widow and friend of Anna's mother, believes Anna has 'a plain girl's faith in a happy ending' and sees 'that this was both her salvation and her undoing.'

But Mrs Marsh does not befriend Anna; indeed, she tries to avoid her, for 'she had neither the capacity nor the desire to penetrate what she divined as Anna's carapace of artifice. She was aware of a complicated existence behind the sunny face which Anna so determinedly prepared to meet the world, aware of enormous frustration, possibly of anger, certainly of resentment. She did not want the task of dismantling this structure which, after all, must have been built up consciously and with some care.'

Other people are less observant. Mrs Marsh's daughter, Philippa, regards Anna as no more than a useful person to run errands for her mother. And when Mrs Marsh introduces Anna to her divorced son, Nick, he is equally disinterested. Anna 'knew that he found her ridiculous, with her flushed face and her careful clothes.' He drives her home from a Christmas drinks party, and kisses her: an insulting dismissal.

Lawrence Halliday, the family doctor and the man Anna's mother had hoped her daughter would marry, sees Anna as fragile and untouchably virtuous. 'Something about that pristine remoteness attracted him, as might a temperate climate, or a serious book.' But instead he chooses a silly, flirtatious wife who then patronises Anna, treating her like a pathetic spinster.

Anna herself is aware that she has spent so long cultivating an obliging exterior that she no longer knows the truth about herself. She also acknowledges that she presents a fraudulent exterior to the outside world. Over the years, she has become accustomed to this. 'She had grown up with the knowledge that she must protect her mother from hurt, and that meant from the truth. They had lived in a pleasant collaboration of unrealities . . .'

This 'fictive' way of life became firmly entrenched years ago, when her mother fell in love with a man who turned out to be a different kind of fraud: a scoundrel who stole Mrs Durrant's money and then disappeared. Mother and daughter bury the unhappy episode and present 'a facade of optimism to the last'.

Anna's only confidante is her French friend, Marie-France, a similarly dutiful unmarried daughter. Yet the artifice is also kept in place for Marie-France's benefit: their relationship is based on a determinedly light-hearted correspondence. Anna's letter about the ghastly encounter with Nick Marsh, for example, does not admit to her sense of humiliating failure; instead, she keeps the tone playful, cool, high-spirited, 'with that faint distortion in the presentation of events at which she had become so expert'.

Finally, Anna loses one of her few remaining solaces: Marie- France announces her engagement, and their relationship is shattered when Anna visits Paris and meets her friend's future husband. He is 'entirely venal', she decides, a man of dubious character, just like her mother's fraudulent lover. And it means, she realises sadly, that there will be no more 'brave civilised letters' between Marie-France and herself.

Winter comes, and Anna becomes paler and thinner. She visits Dr Halliday, and admits to sometimes feeling that she cannot go on. Even her work - a piece of research to do with the French salons of the 19th century that has periodically engaged her ever since she left university - is, she tells the doctor, nothing more than 'a fiction'.

Dr Halliday worries that she might be suicidal: 'Her composure struck him as frightening, almost grotesque: he feared for her.' Mrs Halliday invites Anna to dinner; the evening is so disastrous that it seems quite possible that Anna will go home and kill herself, and finally put an end to all that quiet suffering.

But instead Anita Brookner, like the novel's heroine, subverts our expectations of a conventionally unhappy ending. Anna, having survived the evening, feels oddly strengthened, and decides to go abroad: 'she wondered how and where she was to go. The difference between fantasy and reality had never seemed so difficult to bridge.' She disappears in the early summer. Dr Halliday calls the police, but no trace can be found of the missing woman.

As summer turns to autumn, one might expect the novel's mood to darken again. Mrs Marsh is already preparing herself for 'the long winter siege', as the days grow shorter and the nights colder. But then Anna turns up again, 'in the blessed blue dusk' of a Paris evening, in a chance encounter with Philippa Marsh.

Anna says that she has decided not to be the person that other people expected her to be. She has stopped being a fraud. 'Fraud was what was perpetuated on me by the expectations of others. They fashioned me in their own image, according to their needs . . . In the end I decided to escape.'

The final scene could, very easily, have taken place in a melancholy twilight. But Anna simply disappears again, into the Paris rush-hour, meeting an unknown fate with courage and resolution. Philippa, in turn, follows Anna 'out into the bright, dark, dangerous and infinitely welcoming street'. This may, of course, be read as another 'faint distortion in the presentation of events', in the same manner that Anna rewrote her life in letters to Marie- France. But as a surprising and defiant response to conventional assumptions about the way respectable women are supposed to behave, it feels like a brave happy ending.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works