Until now I had never read any Anita Brookner but she has been getting a lot of love on Book Twitter. So I decided to jump on the Brookner bandwagon with the novel that had been garnering rave reviews – Look At Me. I can safely say that the book is every bit as good as everyone says it is.
At a little under 200 pages, Look At Me is a compelling and searing portrait of loneliness and wanting to belong.
The novel opens with a bang.
Once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And, in a way that bends time, so long as it is remembered, it will indicate the future. It is wiser, in every circumstance, to forget, to cultivate the art of forgetting. To remember is to face the enemy. The truth lies in remembering.
Our narrator is a young woman Frances Hinton who works at the library of a medical research institute studying mental illnesses. Frances has a set and very predictable life. The only people she meets at work are her colleague and friend Olivia and the regular visitors Mrs Halloran and Dr Simek. When not at work, Frances spends time in her large flat left to her by her parents who are no more. Their long-time housekeeper Nancy is the only one who resides with her.
So deeply set in her current way of life is she that Frances shows no inclination to make drastic changes. The antique and heavy pieces of furniture present since her parents’ time are left as they are. Even Nancy prepares the same boring meal everyday.
Frances, however, has a flair for writing and spends her evenings in solitude in her flat as she composes what she hopes to be her first novel. For this she takes inspiration from real life for creating her characters. For Frances, writing is her way of wanting the world to notice her.
Sometimes I wish it were different. I wish I were beautiful and lazy and spoiled and not to be trusted. I wish, in short, that I had it easier. Sometimes I find myself lying awake in bed, after one of these silent evenings, wondering if this is to be my lot, if this solitude is to last for the rest of my days. Such thoughts sweep me to the edge of panic. For I want more and I even think I deserve it…
…I feel quite deeply, I think. If I am not very careful, I shall grow into the most awful old battle-axe. That is why I write, and why I have to, when I feel swamped in my solitude and hidden by it, physically obscured by it, rendered invisible, in fact, writing is my way of piping up. Of reminding people that I am here.
Not much action takes place at the library on most days, but occasionally the charismatic and charming doctor Nick Fraser drops in and creates quite a stir. When Frances is introduced to his equally dynamic wife Alix, Frances finds herself enthralled by the couple.
And just like that Frances becomes part of the Fraser circle and is delighted although both Nick and Alix are critical and prone to bouts of cruelty when it comes to her routines and way of living. Alix is clearly dominant of the two, expects to be entertained all the time, and gets what she wants. Frances often ponders why they put up with her given her dull existence. But she is fascinated by their vibrant personalities and lifestyles. And yet, Frances can’t help but notice that many a time Nick and Alix flaunt their relationship as a spectacle for the public infusing it with an element of cheapness.
Things coast along until Frances begins interacting with James Antsey, Nick’s colleague, who has also become part of the Frasers’ social life. Frances and James become close although the relationship remains ‘innocent.’
It’s a golden period in Frances’ life as she enjoys the company of the Frasers as well as her budding relationship with James all of which inspires her to look forward to new beginnings. Until it all goes wrong.
Since Frances is the narrator, the book in a way is primarily a character study of her. And she comes across as a complex woman full of contradictions. Her highly analytical and forensic way of explaining things gives the impression that she is self-aware and yet she fails to really understand the Frasers and the vindictive rules by which they operate.
Frances also keeps oscillating between her craving for a dynamic social life as well her need for solitude. For instance when Alix offers Frances a spare room in their flat, Frances is almost tempted to take up the offer. After all, it’s the perfect opportunity to shed her old lifestyle which she is beginning to abhor and embrace the new. And yet she hesitates because she knows that she will lose forever her moments of solitude which are crucial for her writing.
Look At Me then is quite a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider.
Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside. The penultimate chapter is frightening as Frances in a fit of despair walks the cold, dark streets of London alone, her shock leaving her oblivious to possible dangers lurking around.
I will be reading more Brookner.