Monday, February 28, 2011

the last book I read

Spiderweb by Penelope Lively.

Stella Brentwood is a social anthropologist, so she's spent her whole professional life observing people, seeing how they interact, trying not to let her own personality impose on and colour things. The demands of the job have made the not getting involved thing a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they've dragged her around the world, from Egypt to Malta to the Orkneys and back again, with never the time nor the inclination to settle.

But now Stella is knocking on for 65 and it's time to change the pace and settle down, and Somerset (never specified exactly, but somewhere near Bridgwater) is the place she chooses, partly because this is where her old university friend Nadine used to live. Nadine is now dead, but her husband Richard still lives locally and is keen to make himself useful.

Rural life takes a bit of getting used to, what with everyone living in each other's pockets and knowing each other's business, but Stella throws herself into it. She acquires a dog and takes it for walks, during the course of which she meets some of the neighbours, most notably the Hiscoxes from down the lane - general handyman Ted, barking mad matriarch Karen and the two teenage boys, viewed with some suspicion by the rest of the village kids and definitely Not Quite Right in some indefinable way. Meanwhile she makes use of Richard's helpful instincts and knack for repairing lawnmowers and the like, and catches up with her old archaeologist friend Judith, both of which prompt a certain amount of reflection about her past life, which among all the peripatetic anthropology stuff involves, inevitably, a few occasions where the strict detachment from the subjects of her studies slipped a bit.

Eventually the bucolic idyll Stella has retreated to turns out not to be all that it seems - after a trip over to meet Judith at her latest archaeological dig Stella returns to the house to find the back door open and the dog missing; it later turns up (dead) in a ditch just up the lane. Her suspicion naturally falls on the two Hiscox boys, but there's not much she or the police can do. At the same time both Richard and Judith are making overtures towards some sort of house-sharing arrangements, for their own differing reasons. Does Stella stick around and cement her domestic attachments, or revert to type and resume her former nomadic existence?

In some ways Penelope Lively falls into the same sort of category as the Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Fitzgerald, Alice Thomas Ellis, Muriel Spark school of short, darkish novel-writing I've mentioned a few times before; Ellis and Bainbridge (both of whom are now dead) were about the same age as Lively (who was born in 1933). However, Lively (who is still alive) writes the warmest, most humane novels; indeed, with the exception of Penelope Fitzgerald she is the only one who you'd say is broadly well-disposed towards people in general. She's also very good writing about the messy business of sexual relationships - the portrayal of hopelessly doomed misplaced middle-aged male infatuation in According To Mark was excellent, for example, and the wistful reminiscing Stella does here about her equally hopeless relationship with Orkney farmer Alan Scarth is equally economical - it occupies barely ten pages but perfectly illustrates the conflict between old-fashioned loyalty to the land and modern freedom and mobility, just as The Levels did.

This isn't Penelope Lively's best book - that would be either According To Mark or the Booker-winning Moon Tiger, but it's better than the other two recent ones I've read (Heat Wave and The Photograph), not that there was anything wrong with either of them. I think there's a superficially persuasive argument that they're all a bit middle-class and cosy, but that's to miss the point, I think. The closer you look, the more you see.

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