Anita Brookner's 20th novel is another superb, touching and honest meditation on marriage, feminism and filial duty. The Bay of Angels
is a finely crafted, affecting story of an intelligent, independent woman, Zoe Cunningham, working through her responsibilities to herself, her mother and her sex. Brookner's opening chapter is a masterclass, moving her heroine from childhood through to her late teens in broad but heightened detail; it showcases all her skills in presenting a character, in the first person, and that character's motivations, self-analysis and hopes. The reader is immediately brought in to Zoe's confidence and feels a close empathy with, and minute understanding of, her world.
Zoe is a singular, although not a lonely child, bookish, observant, temperate but also a lover of fairy tales and the escapes they seem to offer. Her mother echoes these characteristics but, in her, they evidence something a little more diminished. Remarkably, forced out by well-meaning relatives to a social event she would much rather avoid, her mother meets and marries the kind, ebullient Simon. Simon seems to Zoe like a Santa Claus figure, a figure that seems to confirm her trust in fairy tales, who has rescued her mother from long afternoons, and longer evenings, of waiting. She wonders if perhaps now someone will rescue her.
Gentle tragedies, and a dissection of loneliness and the flawed routes out of it offered to women, follow. We become captivated by Zoe's world and by Brookner's rendering of her inner life. Brookner has been at the height of her powers for so long that words like genius and masterpiece flow easily. The astonishing thing is that these words must be invoked to do this level of writing any justice at all. --Mark Thwaite
Surely, by now, no one picks up a new Brookner novel expecting easy uplift or excitement - and her 20th is very, well, Brooknerish. The narrator is a middle-class woman of middling talents. At the start of the novel she expects no great things from life - and at the end of it, after two not very satisfactory relationships with older men, and two deaths in the family, she expects less. And yet on a small canvas and with a predictably limited palette, Brookner is able to portray an altered life in a way which is both convincing and compelling. Set between Nice and London, it concerns the narrator's attempts to come to terms with her widowed mother's marriage to an older and seemingly wealthy man - and with the tragic fallout from his sudden illness. London and Nice are cleverly refracted through the eyes of the narrator; the relationship between the two women is movingly done; their financial vulnerability is resonantly explored, without overstatement. And as is usual with Brookner, there is more real substance and interest in these distinguished 200 pages than in many a longer and more lurid fiction.