Certain things up in smoke

WORST FEARS by Fay Weldon, Flamingo pounds 16.99

Fay Weldon is a writer whose readers turn to her in anticipation of something savoury and pungent that they have enjoyed before, something that, though tart, will not stale in the head or repeat on them. She is insistent, incantatory, given to maxims. She is a ruthless puppeteer. She makes no secret of her opinions. And yet her work for the most part comes fresh. This combination of the expected and the unanticipatable ensures her continued robust success. Her writing calls up an appetite for more. In this, as in much else, she is exhilaratingly coquettish, with a good touch of the dominatrix. She has always got away with shocking authorial bossiness because of her authenticity, which may even come from a golden heart.

Worst Fears is her best book. It may be as autobiographical as Splitting but its prose is far superior to almost anything that has gone before, in all her long career of entertaining and instructing us. Certainly, Worst Fears is as hard to put down as Praxis and as sure-footed as Down Among the Women. In this new book we are offered the familiar chastisings, but in a form less didactic, more mediated by some creative intervention, than her urgent message has heretofore allowed.

Alexandra Ludd is an actress (an actor, as she more than once reminds us, though actually things happen to her throughout the book and she seems to be an agonised victim of action). She is a beauty, a mother, a daughter, a friend, a property-owner, a keeper of pets. At the beginning of the book she is suddenly widowed. The horror begins. All the certainties of her world melt.

Her dead husband, Ned, has deceived her in all parts of their life. She can't move for plain mistresses, including a real monster who lays claim to all advantages open to the apparently disadvantaged and wholly psychotic, hidden deals with estate agents, supernumary wives she did not know of, and kind types anxious to make clean breasts of their view of the dead man. There is also a stupid and maleficent therapist called Leah. Such types are meat and meat to Fay Weldon.

But with this latest novel, Weldon has moved beyond her sketchy, flickering style. She has pushed some way offshore in her quest for what it is that draws people to try to share their lives and time and bodies. Although Worst Fears is a book on horribly corrosive themes, the fracture of trust and fallacy of memory, it declares for good increasingly as despair is heaped on humiliation for poor Alexandra. Here she is tallying:

"Worst Fears: That God was not good. That the earth you stood upon shifted, and chasms yawned; that people, falling, clutched one another for help and none was forthcoming. That the basis of all things was evil. That the beauty of the evening, now settling in a yellow glow on the stone of The Cottage barns, the swallows dipping and soaring, a sudden host of butterflies in the long grasses in the foreground, was the lie: a deceitful sheen on which hopeful visions flitted momentarily, and that long, long ago evil had won over good, death over life. She who had flickered a little for Ned's entertainment, brightly, to Ned's temporary advantage, was herself as sour and transitory as the rest of a foul creation."

In her unhappiness, Alexandra knows, finally, "He was gone forever: she was here alone." She understands that she will have to "relearn herself". Everything in her life that had looked wholesome is slanted by a reinterpretation that leaves her wondering if even her child is on her side. Healthily furious at first, she is treated as though she were mad and gradually begins to turn mad, as every support shows itself false.

There is plenty of splintery incidental fun amid the pain. The least successful running motif concerns costly antiques, collected by Ned and Alexandra during their marriage. Names are allowed a callous aptitude: Dr Moebius the dodgy doctor; Jenny Linden the podgy other woman. The animals, a cat called Marmalade who is a living token of marital deception, a kind black dog called Diamond, behave more forgiveably than humans. Alexandra's son, Sascha, who turns "intellectual somersaults" (the knees off to one side over the shoulders) is very charming, faintly elusive, a little ghost of the domestic solidity that Alexandra thought she knew and that is, by the end of this minatory book, utterly up in smoke.

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