cover image Altered States

Altered States

Anita Brookner. Random House (NY), $23 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44973-7

Booker Prize winner Brookner excels at rendering the stoic, muted lives of lonely people. In another of her coolly rendered but immensely absorbing novels, she trains her keenly observant eye on the fear of facing old age alone. Her 16th novel (after Incidents in the Rue Laughier) is also a stunning study of obsessive passion and of the ways one man's promising life is irrevocably altered by an unwise but irresistible attraction. Narrator Alan Sherwood, a conventional, dutiful London solicitor, now in his mid-50s, looks back on events that shaped his life over 15 years earlier: his reckless, mad lust for and one-night liaison with scornful, self-centered Sarah Miller (granddaughter of his father's first wife); his loveless marriage-on-the-rebound to prim, clinging Angela Milsom; the still-birth of their infant daughter, which Angela unfairly blames on Alan's absence (he was off secretly pursuing Sarah); and Angela's subsequent suicide. Using Alan's soul searching as the framework of her narrative, Brookner explores the discordant ways men and women view each other and the world. Alan, who mythologizes calculating, ruthless Sarah as a ""passively demonic"" pre-Raphaelite vision, later comes to understand that childishly dependent Angela, who inhabits the other end of the spectrum, is as aberrant a personality as Sarah. Indeed, it is a little disconcerting that Brookner's view of female nature here seems essentially uncharitable and extreme. All the women in this book, including Alan's mother and his uncle's new wife, create some sort of havoc in trying to balance their needs for intimacy and independence. Yet Brookner makes them credible, and her story of a decent man forever adrift in ""intense and hopeless longing"" is alive with tension and heartbreak. (Jan.)