Rights of a recluse

THE WITCH OF EXMOOR by Margaret Drabble, Viking pounds 16

"ONCE UPON a time there were two little girls, and their names were Everhilda and Frieda Haxby." Oh God, surely not. Well, as it turns out, yes and no, for the author has confessed: "There were so many versions of the story and all of them were false." So much for the suspension of disbelief.

From the beginning it is clear that we are in some never-never land, subject to the whims of an invisible group leader. "Let them have everything that is pleasant," she proposes, wafting us to an idyllic country kitchen. Hairy Nathan, freckled Dennis, pin-up David, "the Imran Khan of politics", and their assorted wives and children, have enjoyed dinner; now "they are taking their ease and eating slice after slice of solid brown bread". In between mouthfuls they discuss the Veil of Ignorance, the impossibility of social justice, and the antics of Frieda, matriarch and saboteuse of their own small social constructs. They are decent, intelligent, affluent professionals; they are also selfish, complacent, greedy and insincere. There is Gogo "smiling her sardonic smile", there is David "smiling his civil, engaging, disarming smile", there is David again "smiling his charming televisual smile". These people are recognisable and I don't want to meet them.

Our spectral leader treats them with a faintly patronising detachment. Her intention is satirical, but she expects us to be concerned with them and they do not engage sympathy. Besides, there is too strong an authorial presence, a sense of manipulation. "Imagine David D'Anger," she commands. "You say he is an impossibility, and you cannot imagine him." I have said no such thing; I can imagine him all too well. "But you are wrong," she resumes. "The truth is that you, for David D'Anger, are the impossibility ... Look at him carefully ..." I have little inclination now to imagine the dusky charmer. Nor do I care about his vision of the just society. I will not collude with his creator. As David and Daniel wander through the rose garden discussing cultural appropriation and communitarianism, a tide of resentment slowly rises.

Frieda, however, is well worth meeting. Hers is a strong, convincing presence. She burns with gleeful malevolence and dispenses sharp good sense about disease, survival, consumer societies, ring roads and beefburgers, "food that smells of hot vomit". Balefully she works on her family's pretensions. Finally she will leave them floundering, half submerged, choked in the undertow of enlightened self-interest. Meanwhile she cherishes her solitude and squalor, prising mussels from the rocks and offering the occasional visitor a slab of soggy Ryvita.

Frieda's wilful reclusiveness in her derelict Exmoor mansion is a source of anger and anxiety to her offspring. While this is an issue central to the book, it sadly lacks credibility. There is no reason why she should not live as she chooses in this beautiful and uncomfortable place. She is active, intelligent and articulate; she has never "had much truck with comfort and she didn't see why she should seek it now". She is not even very old; she is in her sixties. Her eventual come-uppance could happen to anyone of any age.

Throughout the book there is a scatter of infuriating rhetorical questions, in the manner of another distinguished female novelist. Surveying the house, someone ponders "Whoever could have built such a thing here, and how, and why?" A knitting needle pokes through an orange: "Now who would wish to torture an orange?" The writing is often over-explanatory; we are told what to think, but we may not agree. There are endless sequences of short sentences in the present tense: "The days are long. The light glimmers on the water. The moon is on the wane. And so is she. She has had her supper of tuna and brine ..."

This is a nobly intentioned novel which contains haunting imagery and some powerful polemic. But it cannot sustain its own weight. While Drabble takes issue with the manifold evils of our lives, her characters belie her humanity and weaken her argument.

Their disintegration, when it comes, seem arbitrary and unbelievable in its scale. There is sound, there is fury, but the just society remains as nebulous as ever, fading into the struggle for individual survival. Can there be any hope? The moral stands, bleakly reductive: "Everything dwindles, everything shrinks. A blue ballgown hangs limp on a brass rail in the Oxfam shop."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker