The book is told from an omniscient point of view. The novelist not only lets us be privy to the thoughts and feelings of the characters but is also sufficiently detached to pass judgement on these. So the effect throughout is like that of a wise old aunt commenting on each of the characters as she sees their photo in the album and saying, well that Alfred, he was a deep one. This gives a sense of deep control which is reinforced by the writer's tight command of her prose, both in its language and its structure. It also gave the feeling that these were puppets upon a stage and that all that they were performing had been scripted. I found it difficult to get excited about what was going to happen and even harder to feel as if I cared. These were lives that failed to live up to their promise; indeed, whose life does? They were brilliant portraits. But they failed, for me, to command urgency.
One of the reviewers compares her with Henry James and I can see the resemblance in the elegance of the prose and the slightly stiff maneuvering of the characters.
Brookner also wrote the brilliant Hotel du Lac and the beautifully written if devastatingly sad Brief Lives.
There are, however, many moments of profound insight into the human condition.
- "Alfred ... knows from his reading that virtue is its own reward. This seems to him rather hard, for by the same token vice is also its own reward." (C4)
- "Although his French is excellent it is the French of Victor Hugo and it has not been of much use to him so far." (C 4)
- "He is like a man on a diet who has visions of outrageous excess, yet who is plagued by some inner and inalienable knowledge of checks and balances. If I do this, then I can do that. Why, one might object, why not do it anyway?" (C 8)
- "To suppose that those who are sexually inactive are also sexually inarticulate is a grave mistake, but one which is made with disheartening frequency." (C9)
- "So much good behaviour has been visited upon him that he has felt himself becoming dull, neuter, destroyed as an independent being." (C9)
- "Sofka does not sleep, but addresses the Almighty, rather as she would address her bank manager, with the assurance of one who has always been solvent." (C9)
- "Betty is the only member of the family to whom reading does not present itself as a silent activity." (C 12); Indeed, for Betty, it is a social activity.
- "Max's films are interesting because they concentrate on emptiness, on the time before things happen, the time when the outlaw might just get away with it." (C 12)
- "It is the prodigal who does not return who makes the idea of goodness a mockery." (C 13)
- "Alfred is aware of the need to do something. As far as he is concerned his life has been spent in the wings while other members of his family have arranged their futures to suit themselves." (C 13)
March 2019; 187 pages