Nobel prize winner Patrick White is -- whether you like it or not and liking is always the least of his concerns -- an admirable writer who usually deals with recalcitrant materials, here at their most defiant. For this long, representational, acutely detailed novel spends some 600 pages dealing with that still moment in time when the purchase on life is slipping away -- an 86 year-old woman who has had a stroke and whose main show of vitality is in the gritting of her gums or the wetting of her bed. She is Elizabeth Hunter, attended by three nurses, a doctor, a solicitor, and a staff including a cook who sometimes dances for her. And now from other parts of the world her son Basil (Sir) and daughter Dorothy come to see her; thus from the vanishing margins of Mrs. Hunter's life we pass into their raddled middle age where hope is equally irretrievable -- Dorothy had married an elderly French prince to whom and to whose life she has always been unsuited; Basil had been a dazzling actor now finding a drink more available than a part in a play. Both had never loved the beautiful, imposing, greedy and strong-willed woman who had been Elizabeth and all of them go fossicking in the past remembering triumphs here, failures there. All of it is splendidly noticed with moments of real wit and cosmopolitan worldliness (""Every serious German I ever came across fell back on quoting from Goethe in a crisis"") but humanity is at a premium. In the end one realizes that it is not death but lovelessness which is the bleakest terminus ahead.