Friday, 28 August 2009

The Rules of Engagement (Anita Brookner)

--The blurb--
"'I have come to believe that there can be no adequate preparation for the sadness that comes at the end, the sheer regret that one's life is finished, that one's failures remain indelible and one's successes illusory.' Elizabeth and Betsy are old school friends. Born in 1948 and unready for the sixties, they had high hopes of the lives they would lead, even though their circumstances were so different. When they meet again in their thirties, Elizabeth, married to the safe, older Digby is relieving the boredom of a cosy but childless marriage with an affair. Betsy seems to have found real romance in Paris. Are their lives taking off, or are they just making more of the wrong choices without even realising it?"
blurb from

--The review--
All aspiring writers know that there seem to be so many rules to which one must adhere in order to be successful: show, don't tell; write what you know; use dialogue...There are so many articles on how to be a successful or interesting or readable writer that it can be overwhelming at best. At worst, you can read an article by an enormously well-known author and find that you disagree with something they say, while simultaneously feeling that you shouldn't.

Anita Brookner, though, does at least prove the rule that writing is definitely enhanced by letting one's characters speak. Her writing is improved considerably in terms of pace and vision when more dialogue is added, but even when it isn't there, The Rules of Engagement proves itself to be a confessional, confidential and intimate novel, with the air about it of sitting down with a close friend for a pot of tea while she tells you everything. This effect is in no way diminished by Brookner's awe-inspiring vocabulary ('suzerainty' and 'mephitic' being two such examples).

However, despite the tell-all atmosphere that Brookner's protagonist creates, it is not as sinister a novel as first expected. For this kind of relationship between girls, Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye is far better for delivering that. Brookner's novel has a timeless, slightly old-fashioned quality, especially regarding women and jobs; she mentions the 1980s, and yet you don't even realise that you're this far ahead in time until you're told so.

While The Rules of Engagement has its many good points, including its slightly unfathomable title (though when 'engagement' equals 'involvement' it makes much more sense), the Racine reference that runs throughout the book is untranslated from the original French and is thus accessible only to a reduced audience. Further to this, its inclusion is often contrived and the plot and characters are no better for its existence in the novel.

The novel's elegance is notable, but ultimately it is a forgettable work; it lacks real bite, and Brookner's Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac may be a better bet. On the whole, though, I would direct readers instead to the works of Deirdre Madden, who spins a tauter yarn with more memorable characters.

Other works by Anita Brookner (selection)
A Start in Life (1981; published in the USA as The Debut)
Hotel du Lac (1984)
Brief Lives (1990)
Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995)
The Bay of Angels (2001)
Leaving Home (2005)
Strangers (2009)

No comments: