``The late afternoon is my bad time, when the light goes. I get nervous then, and long for someone to come.'' Fay Langdon is looking back on a life of emotional desolation, in Brookner's most powerful novel yet. Fay's story is in essence a simple one: an attractive, talented, self-supporting but unworldly young woman, with a trusting heart formed by a loving home, marries the man of her dreams, and is never happy again. The place is London and the time the late 1940's. Fay's fine singing voice gets her work on the radio, but on marrying lawyer Owen Langdon she agrees to abandon her career and become a housewife and hostess at dinner- parties for Owen's rich clients. At one of these she meets Julia, wife of Owen's senior partner Charlie, and a former cabaret star, now dependent for an audience on a small circle of adoring women (this is Julia's story, too). By now Fay has realized she has married a man terrified of intimacy; money and social connection are the touchstones in a coldhearted world of pretense. Nor is Julia's circle, to which Fay has been admitted, any kind of refuge, for the actress is a creature of infinite malice, who delights in tormenting her coterie; only Fay's weak sense of self keeps her in thrall. Owen dies in middle age; Fay becomes Charlie's mistress, though hating the deception involved. ``Life had taught me to seek protection, however nugatory.'' Charlie, however, can no more manage intimacy than Owen; then he too dies. And still Fay cannot break free from the monstrous Julia, who wrecks her last chance of male companionship; as old age set in, Fay tries desperately to preserve a facade of dignity. Brookner's portrait of a woman adrift in a comfortless world, where the hourglass never stops running, chills to the bone: it is as harrowing, and as unsparing, as the work of the great Jean Rhys.