Another novel I read and reviewed last year and my final reprise for MSRW.
Spot of post-modernism, anyone? If your heart, like mine, immediately sinks at the very idea, think again. For Muriel Spark's The Comforters -- amazingly enough her first novel -- manages to combine wit, charm, and a highly entertaining plot with the most bizarrely experimental techniques which will make your head spin in the nicest possible way.
The novel begins realistically enough:
On the first day of his holiday Laurence Manders woke to hear his grandmother's voice below.
'I'll have a large wholemeal. I've got my grandson stopping for a week, who's on the BBC. That's my daughter's boy, Lady Manders. He won't eat white bread, one of his fads.'
Laurence shouted from the window, 'Grandmother, I adore white bread and I have no fads.'
She puckered and beamed up at him.
'Shouting from the window', she told the baker.
'You woke me up', Laurence said.
'My grandson', she told the baker. 'A large wholemeal, and don't forget to call on Wednesday'.
A charming but you might think rather innocuous beginning -- however it reveals a great deal about Laurence, his grandmother, and their relationship and, though we don't realise it at the time, also contains hints of future developments. For Laurence soon discovers that his adored grandmother appears to have a rather peculiar "gang", consisting of three gentlemen, including the baker, who meet regularly at her house and have odd and coded discussions. When Laurence discovers a cache of diamonds in the white loaf, he is seriously worried.
Meanwhile Laurence's ex (though still much loved) fiancee Caroline is away at a Catholic retreat, rather to his mother's surprise.
'But Caroline isn't a Catholic.'
'She's just become one.'
'I thought she was looking thin. How does that affect you, dear?'
It is Caroline, in fact, who is really the centre of the novel -- indeed it is Caroline's novel in a sense, since she soon starts hearing the tapping of a typewriter in her Kensington flat as an unseen figure she starts calling 'the Typing Ghost' writes down her thoughts, sometimes even before she has had them herself. Caroline wonders about her own sanity, but also about the reality of the world she lives in and indeed the vey existence of free will. It becomes clear to her that a novel is being written, of which she is the centre, but who is writing it is entirely mysterious to her -- though it soon appears that the novel we are reading is in fact that very novel....
The book is full of wonderful characters, including Caroline's friend the Baron, who runs a seedy secondhand bookshop, is obsessed by Satanism, and seems to be involved in some way in the diamond smuggling business, and the truly horrific Georgina Hogg, suspected by some of being a witch, who dogs Caroline's footsteps and, having 'no personal life', disappears from view when she goes to sleep in the back of Lady Manders' car.
So what's it all about, really? I actually have no idea. But I enjoyed reading it enormously. Though the copy I read was an old hardback I found on a friend's bookshelf, it's been republished by Virago (with a new introduction by Ali Smith), so it's easy to get hold of. Highly recommended.