The Radiant Way, by Margaret Drabble

Story based around the lives of three middle-aged women: Esther, Liz and Alix, who have remained friends since they were at college together. Set around the time when Thatcher became prime-minister, they face different problems which play out against the social changes of the time.

I was reminded of this book after reading Love Unknown which has a similar plot and writing style. I've read it before, but must have been over ten years ago.

I was really impressed by the book (and remembered being impressed from when I'd read it before). The writing flowed so well, and felt so easy and effortless. And, a bit like The Red House there were pieces that felt uncomfortably true - things that you can imagine feeling but being embarrassed to say out loud, such as the description of Shirley (Liz's sister) getting annoyed about her mother-in-law at Christmas dinner:

"It's disgusting", contributed Mrs Harper from time to time, presenting her flat, mean, worthless little counter simply because she could not bear to remain silent, to sit back while others played, although she recognized herself temporarily outnumbered, "disgusting, I call it," and Shirley, hearing this phrase for the millionth time, had a vision of households all over Britain in which censorious, ignorant old bags like her mother-in-law, who had never done anything for the public good, who had nothing positive ever to contribute to any argument, passed judgement on others while stuffing themselves with goose and roast potatoes and sprouts and apple sauce. [p52-53]
Her husband, thus addressed, did not reply: he rarely did. Since his second stroke he had found the effort of conversation hardly worth the meagre rewards. Whatever he said was always ignored: for years, even when in health, he had been used by his wife as a ventriloquist's dummy, in support of an endless succession of mutually contradictory banalities, and whenever he had risked an original or even a concilliatory remark he would be firmly rebuked. So now he sat there, his napkin tucked around his chin, smiling gently: a mild-natured, weak, weakend old man, loyal to his bully of a wife, glad to be included, glad Shirley hadn't found it all to much for her, grateful to sit there in the warmth of the nice oil-fired 1970s central heating. It made a change. He didn't get out much. [p49-50]

There were some authorial asides, rather like you get in How Far Can You Go (which I notice I've not re-read for a long time and so probably should), which give the impression of an author in confident control of the situation. And some nice little flourishes, e.g. this on p 168:

Few maintained their relationships over the years, as Brian and Stephen did: in fact few made what could even be called friendships. But some did: some did.

The repetition at the end is unusual in prose but I think has the effect of providing a nudge to remind you that you're being told a story by someone who knows what's going on, and I find that a comforting feeling (as if she's saying, "it's OK, I'm still here").

And the tense switches too, from past tense to present and back again. And some of the pieces in the present tense seem to get you nearer and nearer to the action, as if it's actually a play. So we move from Shirley, contemplating a pedal bin, to Liz, arranging lunch:

Her spirit shudders: she has seen a vision, of waste matter, of meaningless after-life, of refuse, of decay. An egg box and a tin can in a blue and white plastic pedal bin. So might one stand for ever. She lifts her foot. The lid drops.

Liz regretted her acceptance of Ivan Warner's invitation to lunch...

I realise I've not mentioned the plot, which isn't to say there was no storyline, because there was, and it was good, but what stayed with me most was the writing.

There are a couple of follow-on books, and I've started the second one already, but sort of held off reading it because I'd not written this review (and now it's a month later and so I can't remember as much of it as I wanted). But they'll be worth reading, if they're half as good as this was.

Completed : 22-Aug-2012

[nickoh] [2012 books] [books homepage]