Two audiobooks about isolated women

A quick review of two very different books – perhaps unfair to lump these together but my blogging has not kept up with my reading during the last month, so I’m catching up.

Fraud by Anita Brookner

Fraud was my introduction to Brookner. I had no idea what to expect and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s Richard-Yates-misery meets Elizabeth-Taylor-wit.

The story is relatively simple – Anna Durrant, an insular woman of a ‘certain age’ (in other words, a spinster) disappears from her London flat, and it takes months for anyone to notice. The circumstances around Anna’s disappearance are reconstructed through the eyes of her acquaintances, notably Mrs Vera Marsh, the opinionated, self-centered friend of Anna’s late mother, and Dr. Halliday, the only man to have ever captured Anna’s attention. Of Anna, Vera says, “She saw no reason to upset herself on Anna’s account and yet Anna, she had to acknowledge, was an upsetting person. All that forbearance…”

There’s something delightfully old-fashioned and formal in Brookner’s prose – it’s all jolly good manners and serviceable tweeds –

“Love was an embarrassment unless crowned by a marriage.”

And while the spinster might be an easy target, Brookner delicately examines the various kinds of loneliness people face, particularly exploring the idea of feeling lonely despite being surrounded by others. She also addresses some major themes – duty, ageing, mortality, solitude – and yet it’s far less depressing than it sounds. Anna’s snarky thoughts; Dr. Halliday’s Freudian observations about his frivolous wife and her father; and Vera’s stubbornness in the face of old age, is sharp and witty.

3.5/5 I’ll be certainly reading more Brookner.

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

I’m not sure what drew me to The Anchoress – it’s ‘extreme’ historical fiction, not a genre I read often.

Set in England, in 1255, it’s the story of Sarah, a seventeen-year-old who chooses to become an anchoress. Shut away in a small cell attached to the village church – ‘This was to be my home – no, my grave – for the rest of my life.’

Sarah, grieving for her sister and fleeing the pressure to marry, chooses this fate as a means of escape but soon discovers that in her pledge to spend her days praying and speaking with the village women, she can’t keep the world out.

‘The stones around me were no longer firm. When I touched them they shifted like water, gave way beneath my fingers. I’d been so sure they were solid, sealing me in, sealing out the world, but now I could see right through them. The world could thrust its way in.’

Cadwallader examines themes of grief, corruption, faith, and interiors and exteriors (both literally and figuratively). The story is well written and sustained my interest (despite the fact that I worked out one of the plot lines halfway through the book).

‘A few words from me won’t touch your grief, and nor should they. Tend your grief like hard ground, and wait. One day, something will grow; there won’t be an answer, but you will see you’ve found a way to live, and to live with death.’

The element of the book that I truly loved was the fact that Sarah served as counsellor for women in the village. They came to her with all manner of things – gossip, news of the weather, worries, and extremely challenging personal problems. In combination with Lizzie, a local midwife and healer, there was entrenched and accepted care of women, by women. Although Lizzie’s role builds on what I have learnt through books such as The Good People and The Wonder, the focus on Sarah’s role in the mental, emotional and spiritual health of the village women was fascinating.

3.5/5 A story I will continue to think about for a long time.

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12 responses

  1. Both of these sound excellent. Do you get them via Audible? My library service has free audiobooks as part of its service but the choice tends to be heavily weighted to crime fiction and YA

    • I actually borrowed both of these through my local library. I don’t have an Audible subscription. I’m sure I’d like it but I can’t justify it when I have so many books in the TBR stack! I don’t listen to many audiobooks but when I do I have my old text-to-speech Kindle or BorrowBox App via my library. The selection is dominated by cosy mysteries and rural romance but every so often they get a new batch of literary titles and I pounce!

      • I agree about the weighting and it’s a long way from Wales to WA, but I’ve just signed up to another library – different council, but still part of the same State collection – and suddenly I’ve got ‘literary’ coming out my ears. Listening to 100 years of Solitude today. Think I’ll have to find/order in The Anchoress

      • Clever! I’m not sure if I can join other libraries unless I live in the area… Will have to investigate! I think you’d find The Anchoress interesting – I don’t normally go for books set in medieval times but this one was fascinating and, two weeks after finishing it, I’m still thinking about it.

  2. Lots of people talking about Anita Brookner in my neck of the Twitter woods which is prompting me to think about revisiting her fiction. I also have The Anchoress – print version – sitting on my TBR shelves. Not usually my cup of tea either but I liked the sound of it when it was published and even more so after reading this.

  3. Adding Fraud to my TBR because of your description, “jolly good manners and serviceable tweeds”! Sometimes that is exactly what I want and need. I felt that way about The Heirs- it reminded me of James or Wharton in how carefully the characters guarded their emotional lives. If done right it makes for gorgeous reading and it sounds like Brookner got it right.

  4. Oh. My. God. I LOVE Anita Brookner. She died relatively recently and I was saddened. Her novels are beautiful. Always about loneliness and aloneness. About solitude. And her stylised writing is gorgeous.

  5. Pingback: Historical Fiction Round Up: Issue 5 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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