(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Fraud is Anita Brookner’s twelfth novel in as many years. The last three of these might almost be considered a trilogy on the dilemma faced by docile, obedient women trying to find an authentic life in a social system that little values their strength of character, modest demeanor, and physical plainness. Fraud differs from Brief Lives (1991) and A Closed Eye (1992) in ending “happily”; if the three novels do form a loose trilogy, then, Brookner is suggesting that a measure of happiness is possible for the woman who finds her own way on her own terms, with or without a man.

Like Harriet Lytton in A Closed Eye, Anna Durrant has dedicated almost the whole of her adult life to serving others, in particular her widowed and weak mother, who suffered from a heart condition in both senses of the word. Selfishly, Amy Durrant used her daughter, exacting from her an excessive level of devotion. Moreover, Amy flaunted her own success with men by entering a new marriage late in life, to a Belgian who proved to be a bigamist and who abandoned her after extracting a considerable amount of her money. When Amy finally dies, Anna finds herself burdened with a habit of service, an almost anorexic condition, no obviously marketable skills, and the disappointment of having seen Lawrence Halliday marry a flashy, flirtatious, shallow woman rather than herself.

Also like A Closed Eye, Fraud opens with a mystery, for Anna has been missing for four months and has left no clue as to her whereabouts. The fact that she could disappear for so long and be missed only by her doctor is itself a poignant comment on her isolation. The police are called in to investigate, but they learn very little. The novel seems to be bracketed by the mystery formula, with a disappearance in the first chapter and a reappearance in the final one, yet the material in between owes more to Henry James than to Agatha Christie. Most episodes are seen either through Mrs. Marsh or through Anna-the latter is an interesting novelistic sleight of hand, since technically Anna is a missing person. There is also an omniscient narrator who at times shades into other consciousnesses, notably Lawrence’s. These shifting perspectives provide contrasting points of view but nothing that could be called kaleidoscopic or indeterminate. This is not a postmodernist exercise in the elusiveness of truth but a Jamesian foray into the recesses of the human heart and the clash of various points of view.

The basic structure of the novel, then, is a series of contrasts and dramatic scenes, some of which are presented from more than one point of view. The chief confrontations are between Anna and her mother, and Anna and Mrs. Marsh. These three form a triangle, with Anna at the apex, torn between the alternatives represented by the other two. Amy is weak, silly, dependent, mildly hypochondriacal. She exploits her daughter’s desire to serve while paradoxically wanting her to find her own life and become married. Mrs. Marsh, an eighty-one-year-old widow, prides herself on her independence and dislikes Anna’s meddling ministrations, even though she is happy enough to receive them when she falls ill. Moreover, Mrs. Marsh enjoys the company and services of her daughter Philippa, at whose house she spends an enjoyable and relaxing summer. If there is a streak of Amy in Mrs. Marsh, however, there is also a streak of Anna, for when her son Nick comes down with the flu, she finds the first real happiness she has known in years by nursing him as she did when he was a boy.

There are only two men of consequence in the novel, Nick Marsh and Lawrence Halliday. Nick is disillusioned; his wife had an affair and thereby “forced” him to divorce her. Since then he has hardened, defending himself against further emotional injury. His relations with women are condescending and predatory, though he is capable of sacrificing for his mother. Lawrence is very different from Nick. Reared from age ten by his widowed mother, he worked his way up, first by delivering papers and working in the family’s news-agent’s shop, later through university and medical school. When his doting mother died, he became excessively serious and entered a practice where much of his time has been spent on elderly women. In this way he met Amy Durrant and then Anna, and between him and Anna there arose an unspoken but genuine respect and affection. Although he and Anna never courted, both she and her mother expected an eventual proposal. When he met Vickie, however, he was immediately attracted by her looks, vivacity, and transparent sexuality. After five years,...

(The entire section is 1889 words.)