May's blossoming

BY AISLING FOSTER VISITORS by Anita Brookner Cape pounds 14.99
"Living alone, she had discovered, was a stoical enterprise but one that could be rewarding." Here she is again, the Anita Brookner woman: intelligent, comfortably off, a little older than usual, cut adrift from the world by circumstance and inclination. And here again is the bothersome world breaking in on her, as three solipsistic young people disturb the muffled peace of a terminally dull life. Yet there is a new development. Dorothea May's redemption is often very funny; Brookner's ironic melancholy is blown away by moments which sometimes approach slapstick. Her voice has changed subtly, too. A detachment remains, but the reaction to her characters' varieties of selfishness is close to amusement.

The story begins predictably enough. Mrs May has been a widow for 15 years. Her marriage to the charming Henry, we are frequently told, happened unexpectedly in middle age and was a blip on the blank screen of her days. She has settled back into the isolation of a life spent "unaware of either happiness or unhappiness". Aged 70, her only worry now is occasional breathlessness, a condition which she likes to suppose is a warning of imminent death. Her longing for that uninterrupted sleep is probably encouraged by the retired family doctor, Monty Goldmark, who prescribes unlimited barbiturates. More alive and a great deal less healthy are Henry's married cousins, Kitty and Molly, who insist on keeping in touch, updating our recessive heroine with their every domestic drama. And when Kitty's granddaughter breaks into their empty days, demanding a marriage be arranged, the novel shifts smoothly to a modern comedy of manners.

Mercifully, the narrator does not pretend to understand the young. That cuts down on the long passages about childhood and genetics whereby she explains one aged person's stubbornness or another's hysterical tendencies. Her analysis of liberal North London Jewishness is acute and sympathetic, but Ann, David and Steve are something else: young, like none of her other characters, they are simple, unthinking bundles of human cells and animal appetite. Their obvious contempt for their hosts shakes the old people awake, so that when the bride refuses to take an interest in how she looks, Mrs May can only reflect that "older women felt an instinctive impatience when the young squandered their endowment". Faced with the American bridegroom's evangelical smile, she feels "irritated by his gladness. Kitty probably dismissed him as a sort of eunuch." And told by Steve that he is a musician who accompanies his friend in religious fellowship, she can only think: "the guitar had always seemed to her the most specious of instruments, a parasitic offspring of the harp and the harpsichord."

As ever, Brookner's wit carries echoes of Jane Austen. This time around, however, Brookner seems determined to break out. Her first step is to take her heroine on a learning curve far beyond the capabilities of an Austen character. In the brief couple of weeks over which events unfold, the expected deepening of wisdom develops into metamorphosis. Mrs May's transformation is extraordinary, almost surreal. With a strange jolt, the shy, introspective, deeply lonely old lady turns into a sage. By now it is clear that this is not a conventional Brookner novel. As the wised- up septuagenarian observes, real life is not like the fiction of her youth, which "always ended with a marriage, for that was how the reader wanted them to end".

Instead, we are offered a variety of conclusions, as post-modern and open ended as Ann and David's shaky-looking union. As each false closure fails to finish the story, there is a sense in which Brookner is playing with her readers as well as her characters, and enjoying it. It hardly matters whether we believe in Mrs May's transformation. It is enough to find her creator, too, is still open to experiment.