Book review / Love and slippery fish

Altered States by Anita Brookner, Cape, pounds 14.99

With so much new fiction seeming to coast along less on merit than on street-cred rating, it's refreshing to come upon a courteous Anita Brookner novel. The disregard for fashion and political correctness, the coyly euphemistic references to all things erotic, seem curiously daring and subversive. It's like encountering a crinolined lady in the middle of an orgy.

There are no surprises here, just the guilty nudge of recognition as you identify with one or other of the manifold inadequacies of the characters. You know exactly what to expect, but in a way that is the point of an Anita Brookner novel. There will be ample evidence of a stern yet vulnerable intelligence, acutely refined observation, passages of elegance and eloquence interspersed with long waffly bits, and an over-riding sense of tedium teeming with snakes.

There will also, of course, be a typical Brookner solitary. Here it is Alan Sherwood, "a respectable member of the middle class", a middle-aged solicitor embracing the safety of mediocrity with a desperation that testifies to the fact that he is actually half mad, albeit in that quiet, sane way most of us manage somehow to contain.

Encountering a woman on a station platform, for a moment he is reminded of Sarah Miller, a woman he had once known. This encounter sets off the long locomotive of reminiscence which is his life story, one characterised by the overwhelming illusion that he has actually had an affair with this woman.

Brookner cleverly creates a chasm between what the narrator thinks he is telling you and what you actually understand. He is relating a grand passion; you are perceiving a minimal, passing thing, an awkward filigree of indifference, crossed lines and missed chances. The magnetic redhead, Sarah Miller herself, can scarcely be said to exist at all. Her character is a deliberately slippery fish, impossible to catch. She may be just a deeply unimpressive poser but we're never sure. Alan is so completely baffled by her, he can only put her across as some sort of black hole into which all definitions fade.

What translates to the reader is a profound, sad sympathy, in particular for his short-lived wife, Angela, a woman as frightened and childish as himself, and Jenny, a guilt-inducing nuisance to absolutely everyone, whose progress into a lonely and suspicious old age is so ably defined it manages to be both cruel and compassionate in equal measure.

This is a world of life's losers, those looking in rather than participating. Alan is out of control. He doesn't choose things, they happen to him. No wonder Sarah, whoever she was, passed him by. In the end, ominously, it becomes clear that the woman for whom he actually feels most is poor, neglected Jenny. His sympathy for her is reinforced by the suspicion that "at the end I too will be told kindly lies by those who know me well enough to spare me the truth".

Pithy and pitiless, stoical and accepting, this sums up the tone of the book. An older and wiser man, he can now look unflinchingly at the truth and even take a sort of comfort in the recognition that "the transformation of an unremarkable affair into a sort of pilgrimage has a certain nobility".

Brookner excels at portrayals of extreme pain seeking refined expression. They are studied, understated, excruciating, as when Alan hears that his child has been born dead with the cord round its neck. The image of a staid businessman pulling repeatedly at his collar, alone in a hotel room, will remain long after a great deal of fashionable froth has dated and, in keeping with the spirit of the age, disposed of itself.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before