THE DIARY OF A GOOD NEIGHBOUR by Jane Somers

THE DIARY OF A GOOD NEIGHBOUR

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Jane ""Janna"" Somers, the author/narrator of this often-harrowing first novel, is 49, handsome, exquisitely groomed, a childless widow, the assistant editor of a London magazine called Lilith (where she's worked for decades). But Janna knows that she's a definite failure in some areas--in behaving like a grownup, in taking responsibility: her husband and her mother have both died recently of cancer, and in neither case could Janna really deal with the reality, (""What I was thinking most of all was that I had let Freddie down and had let my mother down and that was what I was like."") So one day Janna meets a poor, ancient woman named Mrs. Fowler at the chemist's, walks home with her, and from that moment on takes on the responsibility for attending to this ill, isolated, filthy, suspicious, and usually unlovable old woman. As both character and narrator, Janna--determined to be a ""friend"" and not an official ""Good Neighbour"" from Welfare--fairly wallows in Mrs. Fowler's squalor: relentless, day-by-day descriptions of the physical miseries that must be dealt with. She listens to Mrs. Fowler's terribly sad life story (wicked stepmother, underpaid work in a millinery, abusive husband, separation from her only child). Thus, Mrs. Fowler eventually becomes ""Mandie""--with attachment growing on both sides--while the rock-sold haven of Janna's office-life starts crumbling: editor/soulmate Joyce is quitting, leaving for America to follow her husband and hold her dissolving marriage together; Janna must re-evaluate her own attachment to the magazine, to a life utterly wrapped up in job and image. And inevitably, then, Maudie too falls victim to cancer--but this time Janna is totally involved in the dying, finding her fears slipping away in the process: ""Once I was so afraid of old age, of death, that I refused to let myself see old people in the streets. . . Now, I sit for hours in that ward and watch and marvel and wonder and admire."" Janna's transformation here is less than fully convincing. And there's a relentless, repetitious quality to the hammering-out of Somers' themes, to Janna's immersion in Maudie's dreadful condition. But, as with Judith Burnley's Unrepentant Women (above), there's power in the notion of a woman forced to re-assess her life when confronted by an old, dying mirror-image. And, while somewhat unsatisfying as a novel, this intense fiction debut offers scene after scene of discomforting realities--some of them a bit narrow (the London welfare system), but most of them grimly, sadly universal.

Pub Date: April 28th, 1983
Publisher: Knopf