The Bay of Angels by Anita Brookner
Zoe Cunningham is a singular although not a lonely child: bookish, observant, temperate but also a lover of fairy tales and the escapes they seem to offer. Her mother echoes these characteristics but, in her, they evidence something a little more diminished. Remarkably, forced out by well-meaning relatives to a social event she would much rather avoid, her mother meets and marries the kind, ebullient Simon. Simon seems to Zoe like a Santa Claus figure, a figure that seems to confirm her trust in fairy tales, who has rescued her mother from long afternoons, and longer evenings, of waiting. She wonders if perhaps now someone will rescue her.
Anita Brookner's 20th novel is another superb, touching and honest meditation on marriage, feminism and filial duty. The Bay of Angels is a finely crafted, affecting story of an intelligent, independent woman, working through her responsibilities to herself, her mother and her sex. Brookner's opening chapter is a masterclass, moving her heroine from childhood through to her late teens in broad but heightened detail; it showcases all her skills in presenting a character, in the first person, and that character's motivations, self-analysis and hopes. The reader is immediately brought in to Zoe's confidence and feels a close empathy with, and minute understanding of, her world.
Gentle tragedies, and a dissection of loneliness and the flawed routes out of it offered to women, follow. We become captivated by Zoe's world and by Brookner's rendering of her inner life. Brookner has been at the height of her powers for so long that words like genius and masterpiece flow easily. The astonishing thing is that these words must be invoked to do this level of writing any justice at all. The astonishing thing is, also, that Brookner is seen as some kind of a paltry, domestic writer - her passion, pain, peerless mastery of the interior is rarely valorised. Critics seem to have bored of her and yet, with each new book, her strengths are underlined.