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by Anita Brookner

Despite growing up with a widowed and reclusive mother, young Zoë Cunningham retains an unshakable faith in storybook happy endings. When her mother, Anne, finally decides to remarry, Zoë is thrilled with her prospective stepfather, Simon Gould, who is not only wealthy, but also kind and generous. Simon’s affection for his new family allows Zoë to pursue what she thinks is an independent life: her own apartment in a fashionable part of London, a university education, casual affairs, and carefree holidays at Simon’s villa in Nice. When a series of unexpected calamities intervene, Zoë learns that the idyllic freedom she enjoys has come at a steep price. To preserve both her mother’s and her own sense of wellbeing, Zoë must discern the real motives of the strangers on whom she now depends, including the silent and mysterious man whose nocturnal movements have attracted her attention.
Download The Bay of Angels (Windsor Selection) epub
ISBN: 0754015394
ISBN13: 978-0754015390
Category: Literature
Subcategory: Contemporary
Author: Anita Brookner
Language: English
Publisher: Chivers Large print (Chivers, Windsor, Paragon & C; Large Print Ed edition (April 1, 2001)
Pages: 264 pages
ePUB size: 1199 kb
FB2 size: 1896 kb
Rating: 4.6
Votes: 359
Other Formats: lrf docx rtf mobi

Steel balls
Brookner returns to a theme that has engaged her attention again and again throughout her career as a novelist. How does a young woman escape the smothering atmosphere of a sheltered home-life and the fate of a life-negating mother? The young woman in question is usually a thoughtful, loner type by nature who has grown up in a world of books and destined already for a relatively sheltered life of scholarship. Such a woman in such a predicament is Zoe Cunningham, the first-person narrator of Brookner's The Bay of Angels.

This time, however, a way out seems at hand. Zoe's long-widowed mother, against all odds, meets and marries a generous, well-meaning older man who offers mother and daughter a new life rich with opportunities beyond their modest expectations. But their unexpected good fortune is short-lived. Zoe, having briefly tasted freedom, sees the door closing, the clouds of fate gathering, and the road ahead foreshortened. She may end up like her mother, after all.

Brookner imparts to this scenario a gothic sense of doom. One can't help feeling Zoe's claustrophobic horror as she sees events conspire, one by one, like bricks being laid, walling her up still alive in a tomb. You can't help but root for Zoe, to hope for her escape, and she does effect an escape, of sorts, but it isn't the one that she, or the reader, foresees.

Brookner is a realist in the end. And Zoe describes the painful path from romantic to realist that so many of Brookner's heroines must inevitably travel. Such a path does not lead to the happy ending we were promised in books and fairy tales, religion and art, but it does lead to the hard-earned wisdom that enables us to make the necessary compromises that enable us to survive with dignity and a measure of contentment.

Such a "reward" may not be everything we hoped for in life; but it is often enough to make the struggle of living worthwhile.

***Memorable Lines***

"The sun is God. Of the rest it is wiser not to know, or not yet to know. The plot will unfold, with or without my help..."

"Our story will run it's course, and I realize, with a lifting of the heart, that it is not yet time to close the book."

"How had it felt to die? This was the news that no one was available to tell. Hence the entire business remains unknown, and must remain so until it is one's own turn to confront it. Then perhaps one would conclude that it is indeed a mystery, and one that no living person, the person so helplessly in attendance, can imagine. One would be more alone in death than one had ever been in life, and that would be the worst outcome of all."

"I was too sensible, even as a child, to believe in a fairy godmother [yet] I accepted as part of nature's plan that after a lifetime of sweeping the kitchen floor I would go to the ball, that the slipper would fit, that I would marry the prince...I was willing to believe in the redeeming feature, the redeeming presence that would justify all of one's vain striving, would dispel one's disappointments, would in some mysterious way present one with a solution in which one would have no part, so that all one had to do was to wait in a condition of sinless passivity, for the transformation that would surely take place."
Zoë Cunningham is the first-person narrator. Her story begins when she was a girl, living in London with her mother Anne, who was widowed shortly after Zoë was born and then became reclusive. When Zoë is in her late teens, her mother improbably meets Simon, who, as he says, is "nearly the wrong side of seventy". He seems to have money and they get married and move to Nice. Zoë splits her time between London and Nice, but out of loyalty to her mother she never establishes an independent existence. Then Simon dies and Anne retreats further inside herself, and her ebbing health forces her to be moved to a convalescent facility. Meanwhile, Zoë meets a possible male companion, but he is tethered to his sister, who seems destined to spinsterhood.

Zoë is a very introspective and passive person. The novel essentially consists of her analyzing, in sometimes excruciating detail, the situations she finds herself in, none of which truly makes her happy, both because she feels caged by her loyalty to her mother and due to her extraordinarily quiescent personality. She inwardly rails against her lonely existence, but outwardly she does nothing about it, because that might entail giving offense to someone. So she grudgingly acquiesces in being buffeted about. And all the while she meditates on life's lessons, reaching the following conclusion by the end of the novel: "Life has brought me to this condition of acceptance, and at last I understand that acceptance is all. * * * The plot will unfold, with or without my help."

I note that many other Amazon reviewers have criticized THE BAY OF ANGELS for its navel-gazing and lack of plot. Those are understandable reasons for dissatisfaction. One wants to give Zoë a kick in the duff and admonish her, "Stop thinking about what's happening to you and just DO something! Take a chance!" But, in truth, there are a lot of Zoës in the world, and I think THE BAY OF ANGELS captures their loneliness and passivity quite poignantly. It also is elegantly written. One of the blurbs in my edition of the book is, "If Henry James were around, the only writer he'd be reading with complete approval would be Anita Brookner." It has been decades since I have read any Henry James, but based on what I recall of James I find the blurb to be apt.

The novel is sprinkled with gentle, rueful aphorisms. Here are two:

"A peculiar innocence was gone for ever. By innocence I really meant ignorance of the world's demands."

"One is never free. One has only the illusion of freedom. One is never free of obligations, whether explicit or implicit. The latter are the worst."

Then there is this exquisite moment when Zoe briefly contemplates suicide (á la the much more assertive Virginia Woolf): "Late at night I found myself, as I knew I should, on the beach. The air was calm, the night particularly beautiful. It would have been entirely possible for me to walk out into the sea. That I did not do so was the result of a sense of duty to myself. I wanted to know the rest of the story, however it might turn out."

THE BAY OF ANGELS (2001) was Anita Brookner's twentieth novel in twenty years. It is the third Brookner novel that I have read. It is quintessential Brookner -- in the sense that it is about a reserved, refined, intelligent but lonely British woman in the last quarter of the 20th Century -- but here that loneliness may be a little too concentrated, too solitary. In any event, the novel doesn't quite measure up to the two earlier ones I read. I would not recommend THE BAY OF ANGELS as anyone's introduction to Anita Brookner. Nor would I recommend it to anyone who needs plot and/or action in their fiction. But having expressed those caveats, I can say that the novel does have its merits and that when I reached the end I was glad I had resisted the impulse to give up on it.
This writer has got to be the best wordsmith around. In each novel the sentences stand alone, dynamic, fresh and gleaming in intensity. The story is important, the characters are profound but these are often upstaged by the absolute pleasure of reading such sharp writing. I can't be the only person buying the latest novel of Anita Brookner every year as soon as it hits the shelf.
Much has been said about Brookner's lonely women and feminist approach and I will leave that to others who are better informed than me to remark upon. What I look for in every novel is the dramatic turn which never fails to be exciting. In THE BAY OF ANGELS, there are several but the most outstanding is the moment when Zoe returns to reclaim her stepfather's house in Nice and finds it already occupied, cocktails in hand, by his greedy relatives. The attitudes and survival tactics of the women who share the clinique with Zoe's sick mother are searing. Best of all is the moment by the sea when Zoe's reflects on the angels flying up from the bay and inward to land where they will reinforce the already celestial commercialism of earth.
A friend of mine in London once remarked to me that he sometimes sees Anita Brookner early in the morning on the Kings Road heading towards Waitrose supermarket. I was astounded, "doesn't anyone stop her," I asked imagining that she would be beset with fans. "No," said my friend, "nobody knows who she is." I would prefer to think that London is so vast that it renders one anonymous and invisible which is often the very dilemma ensnaring her characters.