ALTERED STATES by Anita Brookner


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 Another only slightly marred but once again precise study of loneliness and the long aftereffects of intemperate love, by the prolific Brookner. Like many of Brookner's 15 previous novels (including, most recently, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, 1996), this one focuses on particularly bright, despairingly self-aware members of the British upper-middle class and upper class caught unawares in hapless romances. The retrospective narrative is told by Alan Sherwood, a successful, discriminating middle-aged barrister who looks back at the defining moment of his life: the suicide years before of his young wife, Angela. Her death is assumed, by Alan and most of his circle, to have been at least partly triggered by Alan's pursuit of the fey Sarah, a woman as heartless as she is beautiful. Alan, who had met, pursued, and lost Sarah before courting the clinging Angela cannot, despite the dictates of reason, put Sarah aside. And when she shows up after a long absence and seems to suggest a rendezvous in Paris, Alan tells the pregnant Angela that business calls him away. Sarah doesn't show up, and Angela miscarries in Alan's absence, beginning a decline that ends one night when she overdoses on sleeping pills while the exhausted Alan sleeps nearby. Brookner's protagonists are distinguished by the unblinking, analytical manner in which they regard their follies and by their clear inability to avoid them. Alan crosses paths with Sarah once again, when she is on the point of putting an elderly (and rather unlikable) relative out on the street. He intervenes, saves the relative, and breaks with Sarah. All of this is conveyed in a prose of great precision, its emotional power heightened by the cool distance from which calamitous events are described, and an otherwise deeply disturbing and convincing tale is only faintly diminished by the cryptic figure of Sarah: It's hard, from what we're told, to understand why Alan is so totally infatuated with her. Still, Brookner remains our great poet of loneliness and loss.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-44973-6
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1996


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