“The Seven Sisters” by Margaret Drabble

A newly divorced woman casts a cold, clear eye on life in contemporary London and the idyllic potential of a trip to Italy.

Topics: Books,

The presence of “drab” in Margaret Drabble’s name is at times all too appropriate. No foul mood, no patch of grey London weather, no bit of street detritus (whether human or nonhuman) goes unmentioned in her fiction. Here, from her new novel, “The Seven Sisters,” is Drabble’s protagonist, Candida Wilton, describing the neighborhood around her London flat:

“No, I don’t like walking under the railway, nor under the motorway … I don’t like the pigeon mess, and the old mattresses, and the broken bottles, and the people who lurk near the bottle bank. My heart beats a little faster as I walk under those two bridges.

“There was a black girl standing on the corner at the bus stop. She was wearing a black leather jacket and a short black skirt and high boots, and her hair was dyed that unnatural tawny color that you see a lot around here. And her shoulder bag was like a grenade. I’m not joking. It was circular, and covered with long plastic or rubber spikes about three inches long. Like a mine or a grenade. Street warfare. Battle dress. And standing in the overgrown privet-hedge bottom was a pallid-faced, overweight child of about six years old, smoking the stub of a cigarette. He didn’t seem to be with anyone. He certainly didn’t belong to the black girl.”

The territory here is Ladbroke Grove, a London neighborhood divided between what the British call “dodgy” parts and the more upscale presence of those gentrifiers condescendingly (and perhaps enviously) referred to as “pioneers.” The narrator, Candida Wilton, belongs to neither camp. Middle-aged and middle-class, Candida has been through a divorce from her husband, the headmaster of a prosperous Suffolk private school. And she’s been through an emotional divorce of sorts from her two daughters, neither of whom she feels have anything in common with her. With a mixture of stubbornness, pride and a touch of disdainful asceticism, Candida has relocated to a walk-up flat in Ladbroke Grove.

And it’s in this unlikely setting where a chance encounter with a handsome stranger teaches Candida that it’s never too late to learn to live again — or it would be if Drabble were one of those writers who seek a commercial gold mine in spiritual rebirth. Candida’s idea of starting over means, to some extent, taking pleasure in cutting herself off. It’s not that she doesn’t mind loneliness. But having suffered through relationships that are imposed by social obligation more than fostered by natural rapport, Candida would rather be alone than muddle up her life with unwanted company.

As a protagonist to marry ourselves to for the length of a novel, Candida is a challenge. She’s insular, a bit prudish and not particularly warm. She specializes in the sort of withering judgments that feel right on the money but that we hesitate to accept because they are so lacking in generosity.

So why do we stick with this novel, which consists mostly of the diary Candida is writing on her new computer? For one thing, because Candida speaks with the authority of experience. And for another, she is as critical of herself as of others. There’s a mixture of narcissism and self-reproach when she writes of her diary, “I am quite interested in the bleating, whining, resentful, martyred tone I seem to have adopted. I don’t remember choosing it, and I don’t much like it. I wonder if it will stick. I will try to shake it off. I will try to disown it.”

That’s an early clue to what is emotionally and intellectually engaging in Drabble’s work. Candida might be one of the characters Drabble describes in her novel “The Ice Age,” the sort of people who take great pleasure in complaining and blaming others for the general rotten state of things, but she is suddenly invested with self-knowledge. Candida’s voice is not without a desire to connect with others, and she’s capable of blunt compassion, as when she writes of Julia, a Jackie Collins-ish novelist who has remained a good friend since her school days.

Candida’s desire to make bonds of her own choosing is strongest during a trip she organizes to Italy with classmates from an adult education class she took upon first arriving in London. Drabble doesn’t have enough trust in the possibility of permanent transformation for the book to become a present-day version of Elizabeth Von Armin’s “The Enchanted April.” And her sardonic refusal to sustain this near-idyll, Candida’s assertion that “Happiness is not for me. Happiness is for those who can live in a warm climate,” may make the book feel like a cheat, or at least as if Drabble is stubbornly clinging to despair.

It’s not despair that Drabble insists on, though, but on maintaining a clear-eyed view, one in which all change is conditional and desire to change cannot trump the dictates of personality. It takes authority on the part of a writer to persuade us that a grim view is an honest one. Drabble does. “The Seven Sisters” escapes any taint of insularity because Candida is writing not just about herself but about all those who cannot live in a warm climate, i.e., the people of Candida’s (and Drabble’s) generation.

Drabble is interested here in linking the decay of middle age to the decay of the city she lives in. (Drabble makes her London feel like the city I visited several weeks ago, where crime is on the rise, the homeless are more visible, graffiti is common on the Underground, and a general feeling that all is not well hangs in the air.) Drabble knows that vitality may sometimes be mistaken for blight, especially among those who do not feel comfortable in the present. But if she is stubborn about anything here, it’s her insistence that people who feel themselves out of place and archaic may be able to impart hard truths unvoiced in the culture at large. A chill descends over the book when Candida says of London, “This is not my home. This is simply the place where I wait.” With its intimations of death, that sentence contains some of Beckett’s brutal honesty about age. The brutality too comes from the voice of an author who has identified herself so fully with her city and who is saying she can no longer claim a piece of it as hers.

Our next pick: A soldier returns to his cozy village and family but finds his wartime memories hard to shake

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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