Mugged by an angel

Something About Women PH Newby

Andr Deutsch £12.99

Women have always obsessed P H Newby's male protagonists. In The Retreat (1953), the hero is so moved by the unhappiness of a friend's wife that he chooses to elope with her rather than to return to his own, whom he genuinely loves. In his last novel, Coming In With The Tide, so intense are the hero's emotions for both his wife and their maid that he finds himself in a mnage trois. And at the centre of this latest novel is a retired clergyman and Oxford don, Owen Bark, whose belief in the innate moral superiority of women over men is so strong that he must oppose their ordination. They are too good, he feels, for the priestly task. As a well-known religious columnist, his opinion counts: not only is his opposition deep-seated intuitively, but it has, he thinks, intellectual foundation. Weren't women the only witnesses and comforters of Christ's agony on the cross?

It's odd that Owen Bark should feel this way because his experience of women has not been happy. His wife, Margaret, whom he loved, left him for an American science-fiction writer, and even though she has lived on the other side of the Atlantic for many years, her contempt for him is still a factor in his life. Scarcely less contemptuous is his sister, Eleanor, a termagant who never loses an opportunity of putting him down. In one scene, in Oxford's Botanical Gardens, Owen suffers a minor heart attack while pondering woman's natural excellence. An unknown girl arrives, but instead of doing as he expects and playing the ministering angel, she robs him. In addition, to all this Mrs Thatcher is presiding over the country.

Impeccably crafted, as are all Newby's novels, Something About Women takes an unforeseen direction. But surprise is a feature of Newby's art; for all their clarity and conventional narrative technique, his books are fictive correlatives for life's unpredictability. This novel is not the straightforward account of Owen's journey to some change of heart one might expect. Owen is indeed central to the book, but for much of its course we have no direct access to him. Rather he is the principal instrument in a quintet, consisting of Owen's daughter, Charlotte, whom he's scarcely seen; Daniel, her American husband; Tomas, Daniel's illegitimate son by a Czech woman, who is a political exile unable to get the theatre work he would like; and Margaret, who reluctantly returns to her own country during Charlotte's pregnancy.

Each of these characters, instrument counterpointing instrument, reacts on the others. And behind them all stand two other presences, Charlotte and Daniel's child, unborn for most of the novel, (what kind of world is he going to inherit?) and what one can only call (in a Protestant sense) God's Grace. It is this that Charlotte, though cocooned by the rich lifestyle her husband has brought her, comes to feel as her constant attendant; it is this that her mother, Margaret, tries to frustrate and deny.

In a 1960 lecture, Newby stressed the importance of the form's retrospective nature; it deals with something already over. As readers of Something about Women, we know that women are ordained now, whatever the views of dissident journalists, that Mrs Thatcher departed, that the Velvet Revolution happened in Tomas's country, and that Reagan's phrase "Evil Empire" is already in the history books. This gives a special and a very moving dimension to the dilemmas of the characters: we see them striving for goals whose illusory or attainable nature only we can know. But their ambivalencesremain ambivalences, even though the patina of time might already make them appear otherwise.

Something About Women is a work of concentrated imagination and an altogether rare and unsentimental compassion. Let's hope it will bring about the revaluation that Newby's uvre so amply deserves.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
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.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada