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."

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