Miss Webster and Cherif, by Patricia Duncker

Greater passion comes to Little Britain

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:45
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The heroine of this book is the unforgettable Elizabeth Webster, 69, educated, independent, vexatious and a right pain in the neck. She lives alone in her cottage, has the intelligence of Anita Brookner's female protagonists, but not their infuriating forbearance and congealed anxieties. She is no implausibly inquisitive Miss Marple either, too rude and sharp for that.

Indoors, though, she is intensely lonely, profoundly hurt that she was forced to give up teaching French and fearful that her body and mind are surrendering to frailty. She rages, rages against the coming of the night until one day she simply seizes up, goes into a semi-coma, is whisked into hospital to be provoked by patronising nurses and physiotherapists. She "longed to rise up from her bed of death and hit them... She tried to bite her silent tongue and discovered that the nurse had removed her bridge. One half of her mouth gaped empty of teeth". The novel beautifully catches the humiliation of ageing, and the humour as pride gives way to necessity.

After she leaves hospital, her unusually imaginative doctor advises her to go somewhere wild and startling. She ends up in the Sahara, and in spite of her prickliness, is revivified by the vivacious Arabs she meets and the extravagant pampering at her hotel. She returns home, back to Little Blessington where folk indulge local eccentrics, even ungrateful ones like Mrs Webster. She is still one of them.

Then one night an attractive Arab boy arrives at her cottage, claims to be Cherif, the son of a woman she had befriended in the hotel. He is enrolled in the local college, has nowhere to stay. Gruffly, she admits him into her life.

Unease sweeps through blessed Blessington. Watch out, be wary, trust no stranger: filthy asylum seekers and plotting Muslim terrorists are infiltrating English villages hitherto infused with parish peace. Cherif and Mrs Webster bond, she blossoms and the muttering discomfort of the villagers only increases her pleasure. Yet the reader shares some of their paranoia. He is bright, too charming and enigmatic. This quirky relationship illuminates the book.

Much less satisfying is the attempt to drag in world politics and the confrontation in Iraq. Mrs Webster and Cherif watch programmes like Newsnight. He does so avidly and we are meant to feel unnerved by his compulsion. It doesn't work; nor do some clumsy metaphors and capricious descriptions: "The towels flirted with each other on a varnished wooden rack, presenting a dashing camp mixture of violet and blue".

These jarring examples are infrequent. Most of the time Duncker uses words like water colours to paint evocative pictures. There stands Cherif in awe of the first apple tree he has seen, perplexed as he enters a church with his shoes on, delighted as he is "reeled gently in" by the pretty estate agent Karen, and disturbingly broody after he is asked about terrorism. He borders on the creepy but never forfeits our sympathy. We are drawn to him just like Mrs Webster and then forced into self-doubt as the pacey tale moves towards its dramatic climax. This is a sparkling, redemptive novel which I read in one go and then again with relish.

Yasmin Alibhai Brown's 'Some of my best friends are...' is published by Politico's

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