With the publication of Altered States, Anita Brookner has produced roughly one novel a year for fifteen years. Reviewers of her fiction often say that, because her novels are very similar, readers who like one will like the next. The key to her fiction is often said to be similar to the distinction which Edith Hope makes between hares and tortoises in Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (1984). Tortoises are shy, unassertive people (usually women) who lose out in the game of life; the stories in which tortoises win races have been invented to make them happy. In real life, the flamboyant and sexy hares always win. Hares are not bothered by stories that tell about tortoises winning. They do not read stories; they are too busy having fun.
In Altered States, Alan Sherwood, a London lawyer, is the tortoise, and Sarah Miller is the hare. Sarah is flashy and charismatic. She has abundant red hair and wears very short skirts; she is vain and unreliable and likely to disappear at any time. She bounds after the pleasures of the moment, indifferent to the consequences. Alan is her tortoise: a conventional lawyer of orderly habits, good to his mother, unlucky in marriage, yet besotted with Sarah. The novel is the story of his obsession.
Both Brookner’s vision and the understanding of critics have deepened over the years. Her tortoises are not just life’s losers but also life’s exiles, a distinction that thematically deepens her novels. In Altered States, Polish-born Jenny is the only literal exile, but Alan realizes that, from childhood on, he has been a kind of exile himself. Moreover, in her later novels, Brookner has often lengthened her time frame and broadened her canvas. Her later novels often span generations; they center not on single women but on families and even on men. Altered States describes complicated family relationships; its action extends over thirty years.
Although most Brookner novels are told in the third person, centering on one female consciousness, she has written several novels with first-person female narrators and several novels which center on male characters. The sleight of hand with which she uses point of view is often more devious than these distinctions suggest. For example, Hotel du Lac, Family and Friends (1985), and Incidents in the Rue Laugier (1995) display distinctive and complicated ways of telling their stories. Altered States marks a first for Brookner: a novel in which a man is the first-person narrator.
The novel tells the story of Alan’s obsession with Sarah. All other characters and all twists of the plot serve to emphasize this relationship and to explore its particular significance. Alan has a loving mother whose opinions about his problems are always wise; the same is true of the older man she marries. Jenny Miller, Alan’s distant relative, has needs that are as violent as his own, but that are also quite different. She exhibits her grief in an un-English way that contrasts with his stiff upper lip. His friend Brian has a casual way with women, a way very different from Alan’s. On the rebound from Sarah, Alan is wheedled into marrying the childish and immature Angela, who is in many ways Sarah’s opposite.
Despite the story’s convolutions, and despite Sarah’s absence from the majority of the novel, Altered States never strays far from Alan’s obsession with her or from the consequences of this obsession. The novel begins in the present with Alan, the fifty-five-year-old narrator, staying at a hotel in Switzerland. When he sees a woman who reminds him of Sarah, he tells his story. It begins thirty years earlier in London when he meets Sarah and has a brief, sexually explosive affair with her. The story then shows Alan trapped into marriage by Angela, a woman who, by virtue of what she is not, reminds him of Sarah at every turn. His obsession with Sarah impels him to desert Angela at a critical moment in her pregnancy, with the result that she loses their baby and soon kills herself.
As the years go by, Alan seems more and more like a conventional London lawyer, but he is tormented by his guilt and by his memory of Sarah. When, many years later, he sees Sarah after Humphrey Miller’s funeral, they talk. He is as fascinated as ever, but he firmly makes Sarah give the flat she has inherited from Humphrey to the impoverished Jenny. Although he never sees Sarah again, the novel ends with Alan back in Switzerland reflecting on the central role Sarah has played in his life....
(The entire section is 1875 words.)