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Emma Roberts, heroine of Anita Brookner's 23rd novel, is a researcher in French classical garden design, drawn to her subject because of its "reticence, sobriety and order". It is Emma's work that first takes her away from her widowed mother to study in Paris, but it is the leaving, rather than the thought of pastures new, which soon becomes important.
Weighed down by her mother's latent loneliness and grief, Emma finds it virtually impossible to operate successfully at home or abroad. Her mother longed for an "ideal life that would not betray her", but Emma's hopes are of a far narrower realm. The pursuit of joy is as alien to her singular psychology as a trip to Mars. Happiness, when located in another, is posed in almost deathly terms as an "absence of longing" and a "state of steady satisfaction". The avoidance of some sort of collapse is Emma's chief travelling aim.
Her friendships in France are hardly satisfactory: precise misalliances, chosen for their lack of intimacy and communication.
A grasping young librarian called Françoise becomes important to Emma, her deceits and stratagems prized because they seem lively and real.
The minute ties Emma forms are all low-key and unemotional, and valued as such. One of the moments of strongest feeling occurs when Emma glimpses her friend Phillip's son sleeping naked, his arms "flung out" in an upstairs room, and grieves that a sleep with that sort of depth and passion will never belong in a life like hers.Yet Emma's fidelity to a life slightly lived is all-pervasive; almost a religion. "The unconscious had a complete network installed: I only had to be patient and all would be revealed," she explains.
The terror that lies behind Emma's flawed modus operandi is brilliantly evoked by Brookner's spare and devastating prose. Emma's mother's belief that sadness is "only bearable if left undisturbed", it transpires, has passed down to her daughter intact. That little five-word motto chills as a sort of life-long declaration and guarantee of despair.
The powerful tension at the heart of Leaving Home lies in Emma's desire to escape her own life, to "save" it in some large way, and an even stronger sense that she has no choices and that nothing will ever change. The Paris episodes occasionally hint at future possibilities, but it is the provisional, temporary nature of a life lived between two places that Emma really seems to crave.
Anita Brookner is an unflinching novelist who writes beautifully and fearlessly about subjects that other writers leave well alone. Her control of her material is absolute and the glassy surfaces of her heroine's interpretations of the world are rendered with consummate skill and, at times, startling humour. Leaving Home investigates with subtlety and understanding important questions that are almost entirely avoided elsewhere - in conversation, in life, in art.
Just how do you continue in a life that does not feel viable, and negotiate days that are filled with despair; not the heightened, dramatic, literary variety but the quiet, quotidian, shameful, relentless kind? How do you shape your experiences into some sort of coherent existence when it feels as though you have not a single resource in your heart to guide you?
Susie Boyt's latest novel, 'Only Human', is published in paperback by Review next month
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