Family and Friends

A Hungarian, Sofka was brought to England by a handsome captain of industry who promptly sired four children and then disobligingly died. Nevertheless, she is a gracious matriarch who rears her two boys to reflect the image of her dead husband. One becomes a charming and kindly libertine, one a prosperous, forever unfinished bachelor.

The daughters, reared to good housewifery--which, in their innocent era, is marked by shirts impeccably laundered and scented with lavender and vetiver--fare far worse. They wander through years of isolation in search of a true protector such as they imagine their father might have been.

Life without a breadwinner is slightly precarious. The slavish efforts of a family retainer keep things quite middle-class until the boys take on the fallen tycoon’s mantle. Money, though needed as a measure of respectability, is neither a problem nor a solution; the family’s greed is not for money but for sensation and experience.

Sensation and experience never flower in this family molded by the rules and regulations of their circle. Each of these talented, lovely people suffers from a paralysis of appetite that stifles him or her at a crucial moment.

Yet as Anita Brookner can do with incomparable delicacy and vigorous precision, she gives each one another mode of salvation, sharply diminished perhaps but enough to endure the normal life span and face the accumulating decades.

Brookner, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize in 1984 for her novel HOTEL DU LAC, has again re-created an emotional hothouse where she stimulates exotic blooms of exquisite frailty. In a mere 187 pages, she tells a tale of Tolstoyan dimensions. Her special tool is a disregard for ordinary time; instead she uses a few photos to propel her readers through her entirely convincing world. Indeed, she turns the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words entirely upside down.