It seems as if I have rather neglected Anita Brookner of late. She is a writer I like enormously; I love her world of quiet, disappointed lives, sad Sunday afternoons and late night walks. Back in July 2013 I had an Anita Brookner reading month – during which I read three excellent Brookner novels – but although I still had a few Brookner books to read, I haven’t read any since.
The Bay of Angels was Anita Brookner’s 20th novel – sadly she hasn’t published a novel since 2009, a short story was released as an ebook in 2011. Still, she has had a wonderfully prolific career, particularly when you consider she didn’t publish anything until she was in her 50’s.
Our narrator; Zoe Cunningham is in many ways a typical Brookner character; I found her a little warmer and more sympathetic than some Brookner female characters. Zoe is a young woman who yearns for independence but her life is one of passivity, although very young throughout this novel she comes across as a much older woman, again I think this is typical of Brookner women, they are reminiscent of women from another era.
Living with Anne her widowed mother, with no memory of her father, Zoe grows up reading fairy tales, believing in happy endings. Zoe and her mother’s life is one of easy routine, distant relatives of her father’s always referred to as “the girls” are occasional visitors, but Zoe and her mother’s lives are largely uneventful. As Zoe is preparing to leave home for university, her mother meets Simon, and re-marries. Zoe is happy for her mother, she feels her mother’s life is moving forward in the same way that hers is. Zoe is also thrilled in her perspective step father, not only wealthy, Simon is kind and generous, and Zoe is confident that as her life starts to take off her mother will be secure and cared for. Simon has a home in France, on the outskirts of Nice, and having paid for Zoe’s flat in London, he takes Anne back to Nice after their honeymoon. For Zoe, Simon is an appropriately happy ending for her mother, his paternalistic attitude to Zoe is comforting and Zoe will remain a regular visitor, making the villa a second home for her.
Zoe lives a fairly solitary life back in London, a young woman of university age, she lives in the flat paid for by her step-father and embarks on a relationship with Adam, who soon proves to not be the happy ending that she seeks. On her visits to Nice to see Anne and Simon, Zoe detects that although her mother is happy, she leads a passive existence, homesick for England. During a visit to the villa with Adam, Zoe is made to feel very uncomfortable and Simon makes no secret of his dislike for Zoe’s boyfriend.
Zoe’s ideas of happy endings are tested – what in fact does happen after the happy ending? Zoe is forced to confront some worrying possibilities for the future, when an unforeseen tragedy occurs.
“My life would be hedged in by duties, most of them of an unwanted nature, most of them inherited from other guardians who were more competent than I could ever be. And my mother’s longing for home might prove illusory once the reality of the small flat in the quiet street was seen as less reassuring than had been her distant view of it. Moving carefully around each other we should be polite, accommodating, yet uncomfortable, for nothing could revive those days of childhood when such companionship was second nature to us both. Now events had intervened, had altered us; we might find ourselves to be strangers, and that would be the saddest outcome of all”
When Simon dies suddenly, everything is turned upside down. Anne’s shock propels her into a terrible decline, and Zoe struggles to help. Discovering that Simon’s assets were not quite as they thought and that crucially the villa does not belong to him; Zoe is forced to take a small room above a shop, from where she visits her mother in hospital, and later the nursing home where she is moved. Zoe and her mother are essentially trapped by their change in circumstances, surrounded by strangers and only wanting to go home. Zoe is required to go back and forth to London, but the needs of her mother pull her back to Nice after a few days, where she continues to live in a small dark room, eats her meals in cafes, taking walks at night in the Baie des Anges. Her walks begin to be intercepted by Dr Balbi, a doctor from the clinic where Anne was initially treated.
“I liked to think that the Baie des Anges was once inhabited by angels. I could visualize their phosphorescent descent, see them performing a brief spiritual dance on the shore, before heading inland to stimulate the economy. That economy was now thriving, but at night, on the edge of the sea, it was still possible to imagine a different sort of tourist, an unearthly visitation at one with the elements.”
The Bay of Angels is beautifully written – surely that is a given, Brookner’s prose is pretty near perfect, and there is a wonderfully, strong sense of place in this novel. From the glorious Baie des Anges, to the flat in London where Zoe lives her solitary life, to the Résidence Sainte Thérѐse nursing home, where Anne is installed, all are brilliantly portrayed and acutely observed.