Ursula Holden

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Anita Brookner

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421

If you are a former artist's model who wears shawls, never washes her feet, and is indifferent to the mice tracking through the fat in her frying-pan; if you prefer sleeping on the floor to sharing your husband's timid penchant for clean sheets; if your best friend is a mad palmist called Lady Podesta Doge; if you really love your brother-in-law, a creator of constructivist sculptures composed of dismembered dolls and fruit machines and given names like "Fruition" and "Pulse"; and if you call your baby Tangerine, you will feel an initial sympathy with the heroine of [Turnstiles]. But be warned. Your husband will decamp to Dorset to write his autobiographical masterpiece, having vomited over the branch library where he was previously employed, your lover will drown in Battersea Park, your child will be autistic, and Lady Podesta Doge, possibly piqued at your refusal to eat her sandwiches of roast rabbits' ears, will go into partnership with a team of Indians to dispossess you of your garage dwelling with its view of the withered ice-plants in the windowbox. Worse still, your selfish husband and your old school enemy Primrose will reappear and make a bonfire of your intimate diaries. We shall never know what you wrote in them.

Ursula Holden's unfriendly view of the universe, which served her well in String Horses, has got a little out of hand here. She may be telling a compassionate story of deprived childhood; she may be detailing the death of a market community; she may be writing a fierce satire on artistic pretensions. She may be doing any of these things, but I do not think she is. For her story of the disadvantaged is written in so disadvantaged a manner ("thin-faced tart", "slitty-eyed Asians") that her purpose is lost. The narrative is so glumly jerky, so wilful in its changes of sympathy, or lack of sympathy, that the reader may feel a profound relief when the conclusion is reached. The conclusion is, naturally, inconclusive….

Further questions, of a largely rhetorical nature, suggest themselves, Why is this book called Turnstiles? Why does the publisher claim that it "has the structure of classic drama"?… And why, when the writing of even a bad novel is so difficult, does the author, who has proved that she can write good ones, give the impression of having wilfully discarded all that she previously knew?

Anita Brookner, "Strongly Disadvantaged," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3910, February 18, 1980, p. 173.

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