A Friend from England by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner carved out a particular niche for herself during her writing career, producing beautifully crafted novels about loneliness and isolation. Her books often feature unmarried women living small, unfulfilling lives in well-to-do London flats, where they spend their evenings waiting for unobtainable lovers to make fleeting appearances. First published in 1987, three years after her Booker Prize win, A Friend from England is another exquisitely written story of loneliness and self-deception, very much in a similar vein to this Brookner’s other work.

Central to the novel is Rachel, a single, independently-minded woman in her early thirties. The co-owner of a small bookshop in Notting Hill, Rachel lives her life on the fringes of other people’s worlds, avoiding entanglements, amorous relationships, or anything that might lead to a loss of control or demonstration of passion. To her mind, the illusion of romantic love is not for the sensible – only for the naive or the very brave. Despite her role as the novel’s narrator, Rachel remains somewhat enigmatic or difficult to pin down throughout. She drops hints of previous affairs and ‘arrangements’, but little more in terms of detail is ever revealed. Above all, Rachel takes satisfaction from her lack of emotional bonds, a position that ultimately colours her view of others, particularly those who see the world through rose-tinted glasses.

Rachel’s closest friends are Oscar Livingstone – an ageing accountant that Rachel inherited from her deceased father – and his wife, Dorrie. The Livingstones are a kindly couple, treating Rachel almost as if she were part of their family. In short, they see Rachel as an older sister to their twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Heather – someone to guide her in the broader ways and mysteries of the world. On the surface, Heather appears to be a passive person, seemingly content to remain in the company of her parents, sharing their interests and lives until such time as she is ready to marry. While Rachel loves her Saturday afternoon visits to the Livingstones’ for tea, she feels somewhat ambivalent towards Heather and her seemingly circumspect approach to life. Consequently, the two women maintain a friendship, albeit a rather superficial, surface-level one.

While Rachel would be happy for her Saturdays with the Livingstones to continue forever, this arrangement is threatened when Heather suddenly announces her engagement to Michael Sandberg, a strange, childlike man whom Rachel views as somewhat suspicious.

My first impression of Michael Sandberg was that he was blessed with, or consumed by, radiant high spirits. My second impression was that a man of such obvious and exemplary charm must be a liar. (p. 42)

Michael appears to be fairly comfortably off, mostly due to his father’s various business interests in time-share apartments and travels agencies; nevertheless, there is something false or forced about him, a quality that doesn’t quite ring true.

Before long, Heather and Michael are married, settling into an apartment near Hyde Park to begin their married life. As far as Rachel see it, Heather appears to have fast-forwarded to middle age. There is little evidence to suggest that she actually loves Michael; rather their relationship appears to be relatively functional or anodyne in character.  

She seemed to me to have passed into another age group, one in which material certainties are taken for granted, romantic love is a thing of the past, and work has assumed the central position that it usually occupies in truly adult lives. (pp. 71–72)

Meanwhile, Oscar and Dorrie are as welcoming as ever, inviting Rachel to come and see them, just as before – and it is during one of these visits that Oscar reveals his concerns about Michael while driving Rachel home.

A series of revelations follows, ultimately culminating in Heather moving to Venice to marry Marco (the brother of an Italian friend, Chiara) after her first marriage to Michael breaks down. It is at this point that Rachel realises how little influence she has Heather. Rather than sacrifice her happiness by staying in England, Heather has chosen to follow her heart by moving to Venice, where she hopes the marriage to Marco will be a success.

In a showdown between the two women in Venice – a location that Rachel dislikes due to her fear of water – Rachel rails against Heather and what she sees as her selfishness, revealing an envy of those who choose a different path to her own. In some respects, the most startling revelation is the one that Rachel experiences when the reality of her life becomes painfully apparent.

The fact of the matter was that the wonders of this earth suddenly meant nothing to me. Without a face opposite mine the world was empty; without another voice it was silent. I foresaw a future in which I would always eat too early, the first guest in empty restaurants, after which I would go to bed too early and get up too early, anxious to begin another day in order that it might soon be ended. I lacked the patience or the confidence to invent a life for myself, and would always be dependent on the lives of others. (p. 204)

A Friend from England is a very interior novel – claustrophobic, almost, as everything we see and hear is filtered through Rachel’s outlook and perspective. There is real fury and anger from Rachel in what she sees as the foolishness of Heather’s actions. Women like Heather think life is ‘a sort of party, to which invitations are sent out’ without realising there comes a point when ‘the celebrations have to stop’. In short, Heather’s rejection of a circumspect worldview comes as a shock to Rachel, exposing the folly of the self-image she has carefully constructed for herself.

Despite the novel’s somewhat sombre tone, there are occasional flashes of humour – a very Brooknerian strain of humour, mostly stemming from the author’s dissection of the quirks of human nature. In this scene, Dorrie and her sisters are fussing over Michael, eagerly anticipating their roles in orchestrating Heather’s wedding.

They looked on him with indulgence, and I could see that he had a special rapport with these simple women, women who loved weddings and babies and cherished these matters over and above all others, simply filling in the time disdainfully until mobilised by another wedding. The married state claimed their strongest loyalties, their finest efforts; already their minds were furiously working on the arrangements, which would be argued out in long telephone calls. (p. 46)

In summary, this is a quiet, character-driven novel – beautifully-written as ever and very tightly controlled. It’s a novel I admired rather than loved, but brilliantly observed nonetheless.  

My copy of A Friend from England was published by Pantheon Books; personal copy.

31 thoughts on “A Friend from England by Anita Brookner

  1. inthemistandrain

    Hurrah, I have this in a bookcase, no need for an impulse purchase. I have skimmed your review until I’ve read the book. It sounds most promising and very, very Brookner Thanks again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it. And yes, it’s very Brooker, albeit with a slight variation on the heroine’s realisation.

      Reply
    2. inthemistandrain

      Anita Brookner is so fine a novelist in telling Rachel’s story in the first person. I was so invested in her point of view it was only in the Venice section that my thoughts about Heather began to alter. A brilliant story teller, it’s as I read and re-read her that I appreciate just how good she is.
      How I loved Oscar and Dorrie!

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Yes, she really immerses the reader in Rachel’s perspective, which isn’t always reliable! As others have commented, Brookner is very skilled at revealing elements of her central characters’ personalities through their interactions with others. Self-deceptions and delusions seem to be recurring themes, especially in these early books. And yes, Oscar and Dorrie are just wonderful aren’t they? To be honest, I could quite happily read a novel about those two alone!

        Reply
  2. whisperinggums

    I read a lot of Brookner, before I started blogging, and none since, though I have a couple of my TBR that I’d given my dear Mum. I read this one when it came out, and greatly enjoyed your post as it brought it back to me rally well. Her novels are often claustrophobic, and if you read too many close together you can start to feel melancholy I think, but her writing is so good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great. I’m glad my post proved to be a useful reminder of this one. You’re absolutely right about the dangers of reading too many Brookner novels in a short space of time, as they can feel somewhat claustrophobic or depressing. (Interestingly I find the same is true of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels, but that’s probably another discussion!) I’ve been spacing these out over quite a long period of time – one Brookner every 6 months or so to avoid that very effect!

      Reply
  3. MarinaSofia

    What a coincidence! Was having a chat with a friend last night about the life choices of a mutual friend (choices we considered foolish)… and then we caught ourselves wondering why we were so judgemental! Sounds like a very cleverly written POV – love this kind of subtlety.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, how fitting! It’s really rather clever, and she creates some interesting characters here. Michael and his father are quite a pair!

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    Read this a long time ago. She is a very clever writer in the way she uses the P O V of one character, and then manages to show their self-delusion.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I completely agree. She does this in A Misalliance, too. In fact, they’re could be seen as companion pieces in a way, very much in the classic Brookner vein.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review of this Brookner, Jacqui, even if not as loved as other ones. I do enjoy character-driven novels and am more convinced I need to explore her work more, even though I don’t warm to Hotel du Lac. Where would you suggest is a good place to begin???

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I would suggest one of her early novels – either her debut, A Start in Life, which kicks off with one of the best opening paragraphs in literature (you’ll almost certainly have seen it quoted somewhere online) or her third novel, Look at Me, which is the one they covered on Backlisted. The latter features a haunting passage towards the end – a long ghostly walk through the streets of London at night, which really stands out.

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    How interesting that Brookner not only shows Rachel’s rather unacknowledged understanding of her own limitations through much of the book, but also the Livingstones’ delusion that she might provide their daughter a broader guide to the world!

    Reply
  7. Liz Dexter

    I’m sure given the heroine’s age and the publication date that this is one of the ones I’d have read before I had to stop reading her later ones, but I don’t remember it at all. … [checks] and indeed I bought it in June 1997 and read it in the December, and apparently still own it! I think she might be ripe for some re-reading …

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m certainly glad to have rediscovered her, so to speak, later in life. My first encounter with her was back in the mid ’80s when I was too young and inexperienced to fully appreciate her subtleties, but reading these novels now feels like a completely different experience. I would definitely recommend it!

      Reply
      1. Liz Dexter

        Yes, me, too, but I did re-read her some time in my 30s. I find the later ones with older protagonists too close to the bone to bear, somehow, though maybe I’ll be upset by the older generation in her “younger” books now!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I find her older characters really interesting. It feels like they’re from another age, almost Mitteleuropean in some respects – possibly because her farther emigrated from Poland to England in the early 20th century.

          Reply
  8. heavenali

    It’s so long since I read an Anita Brookner, I have read a lot of her novels but not this one. I really like the way Brookner explores her characters through their relationships with others. I may have this one lurking in my tbr somewhere. Definitely time to read her again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely – that’s a great way of putting it. Her heroines are often bright but not terribly self-aware, so these sudden realisations and self deceptions tend to come as shocks.

      Reply
  9. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Hi Jacquiwine — excellent review as always! Although I’ve read this one a couple of times, my last re-read was many years ago and I’d forgotten many of the details. I thought your comparison to Misalliance was quite perceptive; I hadn’t thought of it before but the two novels really do seem to be emotional companion pieces.
    Although I totally agree with your assessment that Friend is claustrophibic (I actually think this adjective applies to all of Brookner’s work to some extent), it’s one of my very favorite Brookner novels. Perhaps it’s that trip to Venice (I’m addicted to fiction with a Venetian setting), perhaps it’s the subtle linkage between Rachel’s fear of water and her avoidance of an emotional life (the big scene between the two women occurs in Venice, a literally drowning city), or the fact that I’ve known a Rachel or two over the years. I really should re-read Friend, to see if I like it as much as before!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I didn’t say much about Rachel’s fear of water, but that’s got to be a significant factor – as you say, it’s literally sinking into the canal network! There’s something symbolic about Venice, too, particularly its reputation as a city for lovers – a romantic destination that must seem alien to Rachel.

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.