Saturday, March 11, 2017

Look At Me, by Anita Brookner

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Anita Brookner's brutally honest Look At Me is an unflinching study of the self in isolation. 

Frances Hinton works in a medical library. Her days are spent cataloguing odd illnesses. As for her colleagues, they are hardly an inspiring lot. Most seem petty and censorious. Frances has one friend in the office, Olivia, who was crippled in a car accident. Olivia's health is as delicate as Frances' borderline psychological state. Frances lives alone in an empty house that she inherited from her parents. There is a live-in housekeeper, Nancy, who keeps mostly to herself. Nancy is a family retainer: she helped Frances nurse both her parents as they died.

Into this drab world comes Nick and Alix. Nick is a doctor at the medical library and Alix is his vivacious and carefree wife. Frances sees them as superior to her in every way, even going so far as to think that they are perfect exemplars of Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest. Where Frances is weighed down with her loneliness, her introversion and her rather stiff personality, Nick and Alix soar without a care in the world. Life for them is completely uncomplicated.

The friendship between Frances and Nick and Alix is unequal right from the beginning. Nick and Alix, the glamorous couple, hold the balance of power. They are almost patronising in their attitude towards Frances, referring to her as their "poor orphan Fanny". Frances goes along with this: she's hoping to remake herself as someone new. When Frances starts dating James, a friend of Nick and Alix, all seems to be going well until the flimsy base of her friendships start to crumble.

Written in the first person, Look At Me, Anita Brookner's third novel, is a penetrating study of the isolated self. It's a journey deep into the recesses of the human psyche, asking questions such as what our place in society truly is, where do we fit in, if at all? Frances sees herself almost as a disappearing woman - socially awkward, in a way self-loathing, she hopes to erase her past and actually become Nick and Alix. There are several scenes in the novel where, after some dramatic event, Frances suddenly catches herself in the mirror. These are startling moments, as Frances looks at herself almost as if she were looking at a stranger, wondering who she really is.

Fans of the dark, brooding fiction of Patrick Hamilton and William Trevor will find much to savour in Look At Me. The novel also has many similarities to Zoe Heller's 2003 Notes on a Scandal, a story narrated by a lonely, unmarried teacher eager to make close friendships.

Intimate, revealing and painfully honest, Look At Me unflinchingly lays the soul bare.

Look At Me,  by Anita Brookner. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780241977774 RRP: $22.99

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