Tired, but not too emotional: Carol Birch gets a bit weary
Falling Slowly

by Anita Brookner

Viking, pounds 15.99

Anyone familiar with Anita Brookner's work will know her typical protagonist - usually female, timid and uneasy, with a sharp intellect and air of refinement. Here she is again, this time doubled. Beatrice and Miriam are tired sisters, looking back on unfulfilled lives. "Disappointment was their inheritance" from their capricious mother and weak father. Beatrice is a pianist, enduring early retirement. Miriam, a translator, has, after a loveless marriage, embarked on a self-effacing affair with a married man.

We are told that they are very different: Beatrice dreamy and romantic; Miriam practical and sensible. In fact, it's difficult to tell them apart, as they speak with the same voice and share the same Brooknerian detachment. Beatrice dreams of rarified love but, when put to the test, Miriam likewise values the quixotic over the genuine.

While Beatrice's fantasies are of the ideal man, Miriam's are of the ideal home, "bathed in sunshine, the golden sunshine of evening", with "a bedroom of such paradisal quiet that she could hear a late bird, or an owl, or the bell on the neck of a tame cat".

The book's opening image, of Miriam looking in a gallery window at a painting, is pertinent. Miriam and Beatrice are like onlookers at an exhibition. The painting represents life, vitality, motherhood, company. By contrast, the sisters seem becalmed and fruitless, prematurely aged.

It comes as something of a shock to find out that Miriam is only 42 and Beatrice not much older. Miriam calls the radio the wireless; Beatrice is shocked at the idea of a teenager going to live with her boyfriend. Clearly, Brookner is actually writing about much older people. Ageing, her real subject, is viewed in an almost wholly negative light, as the loss of dignity, beauty and identity.

The keyword of the book is "tired". Hardly surprising that the characters are exhausted, considering the way Brookner continually pulls the rug of happiness from under their feet. The cumulative effect is like that of an an infectious yawn.

I have no objection to the constant mining of a single theme. A good writer, and Anita Brookner is very good, will find added depth and insight by focusing on a single spot. But I don't think this novel shows anything we haven't already seen, and seen better, from Brookner. Apart from the odd bit of sparse conversation, it consists almost entirely of exposition, which imparts a text-book feel, as if we were reading an essay rather than a novel. The writing, of course, is flawless.