1 August 2015

Altered States by Anita Brookner

'The woman on the station platform had her back to me.  If she had turned round I would have been able to satisfy myself that she was not someone I had once known.'

Train station platforms are right up there with gas-rings, the sound of a brass bell announcing a visitor, slices of seed cake, and the word 'teapot' to draw me to a story.  While those items certainly have definite 'cosy' appeal, Altered States is anything but.

'I am not even sure that my memory of her is exact, for I frequently winced at her cruelty until I learned to laugh at it.'

So begins the telling of Alan's past obsession with Sarah Miller, a distant relation through a marriage.  In her early twenties, Sarah is described as vain, feckless, and a stubborn brat.  Arguably, she is a young woman who marches to her own tune and refuses to be pinned down by a man.  Once Alan has set his sites on this young woman with her fabulous Pre-Raphaelite red hair and a wake filled with Guerlain all sense of rationale disappears.  He rings her phone but there's never an answer, he even resorts to walking past her flat and looking through the letterbox late in the evening.  

Fruitless attempts to have anything more than a lone sexual encounter with Sarah result in Alan offering marriage to another woman.  Angela is every bit as needy as Sarah is elusive.  Alan has now jumped from the frying pan into the fire.  While Brookner is incredibly detail-oriented in her examination of the human psyche there are two incidents that take place with such a swift set change it made me gasp.

Alan's mother, Alice, lives in a well-appointed flat and enjoys the company of Aubrey Fairweather, a gentleman from the same building.  Alan describes him as delicate 'but probably made of teak'.  Alice Sherwood, a genteel Englishwoman, presented Alan with his current home, a flat on Wigmore Street, as a twenty-first birthday present.  He suspects the gift is something of a bribe; payment for his company as his mother becomes more dependent in her advancing years.  Being attentive is a character trait that seems inherent in Alan but it also ventures into something less admirable...

'Even at my young age I liked women to be cherished.  I liked to think of them as needing a modicum of protection, encouragement.  I liked them to be modest, grateful for flattery, expert at soliciting kindness.'

There are other subplots equally as fascinating and in true Brookner form, equally depressing.  For example, Jenny, a Polish woman saved from penury by an elderly miser, Humphrey.  Loneliness, or the threat of it, is a common theme and very prevalent here.  But if .you're a fan of Brookner's writing it's exactly what you're looking for when you reach for one of her books.  You won't be disappointed by Altered States.  I thoroughly enjoyed this class-conscious novel and am looking forward to reading my way through Anita Brookner's oeuvre.

Title Unknown
Michael Garmash


  1. I have only read one Anita Brookner book, Hotel du Lac, which I remember liking very much. Now you have enticed me to read something else by her. Thanks for your review!

    1. Keep reading, Sunday! Thomas (Hogglestock) is a massive fan and has even started mapping the London locales in each of Brookner's books. Being the anglophile that you are, I know you would enjoy taking a peek at his project!

  2. I used to love Anita Brookner and read quite a few of her novels when I was in my twenties. Now, though, I find them too painful and sad. I like her writing, though, so hope to return to them someday.
    I do love your cosy triggers - slices of seed cake will always draw me in too!

    1. I remember my first Brookner...it was a discard from the library and one of the librarians said her books were SO depressing. She couldn't discard them fast enough! I decided to give one a try (The Incident in the Rue Laugier) and loved it. Her writing strikes me as sort of 'Elizabeth Bowen Lite' but I agree with you...a binge would never work.
      Who am I kidding? cake of any kind!!

  3. This is one I have not read, so I'm very much looking forward to it now. She is an acquired taste, but once one has tasted... ;-)