Anita Brookner
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Buy *Strangers* by Anita Brookner online

Anita Brookner
Random House
256 pages
June 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Paul Sturgis lives alone in a central London flat which now depresses him beyond measure. A retired bank clerk, Paul spends most of his days ruminating on his life, his humble, lackluster suburban childhood, and his parents' once tight-lipped antagonism. Paul’s only real connection is with Helen, a long-lost cousin's widow whom he reluctantly visits on wintry Sunday afternoons.

Paul and Helen share a respect for ancient contractual arrangements, but both are increasingly aware that love and friendship are lacking. Helena is old and a little uneasy, aware that Paul’s visits have become of dubious value. With a somewhat damaged heart and a vague history of the years that have passed, Paul goes on trip to Venice. There he meets middle-aged Vicky Gardner.

Venice begins to enfold him, “gentle, ruminating and peaceful,” and Vicky and her delightful smile seem to transform his day. At first Vicky comes across as a sort of amiable companion, a friendly mate who’s looking for solace and a chance to reinvent herself after the failure of her marriage. But deep down, Vicky is transient and desperate, her brittle self-sufficiency protecting her from a history of ad-hoc arrangements and a life that is spiraling downwards.

As Vicky’s private conflicts, hints of an evanescent life in South America and propensity to drift overwhelm him, Paul’s final impression is one of irritation at her story of divorce and homelessness, even though he does have a reluctant sympathy for her plight. Back in London amid tea, a glass of wine, and the odd cigarette, Paul and Vicky fulfill their respective roles, “his paternal or rather avuncular and hers, prettily independent, but with an edge of melancholy.”

When Vicky leaves her suitcases with Paul, installing them in his bedroom when she suddenly disappears for lengthy periods, Paul lunches with Sarah, an old girlfriend. With a husband relegated to pre-history, a house in France to which she resorted to from time to time, Sarah remembers a life lived “without enthusiasm” and imagines what her life might have been like if she had instead married Paul with his airy, exotic notions of exile.

Even in his mid-seventies, lonely and disconsolate, Paul is driven by the desire for a better life, or at least a different kind of life. When Helen unexpectedly dies and Paul inherits her flat and some of her money, he finds himself on the cusp of a new experience when Sarah precipitously asks him to attend to her house in France.

With clarity and an elegant simplicity, Brookner exposes Paul’s deepest yearnings and longings, even though the sections where Paul internalizes sometimes come across as labored. Intricate and nuanced, Strangers is about aging, loneliness, and acknowledging the past as Paul’s fragility and silent tenacity are slowly exposed. Surprisingly, Vicky remains the most compelling character; there’s something quite powerful - almost transcendent - in Brookner’s description of her eternal rootlessness, her silent and desperate need for connection.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2009

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