On the brink of loss in Britain

The Radiant Way, by Margaret Drabble. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 432 pp. $18.95. Margaret Drabble's latest novel, her first in seven years, is a sober, sad, very brave attempt to fix in the amber of fiction the uneasiness and uncertainty of life among the middle classes in Margaret Thatcher's England.

``The Radiant Way'' is the story of a generation nurtured on the promise of a brave new world, the solid foundations of which seem to have dissolved and melted into air. Its trio of heroines ``were not princesses ... not beautiful ... not rich. But they were young, and they had considerable wit.''

Liz, Alix, and Esther are intelligent, socially disadvantaged young women from the provinces who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s, when ``one of the surest ways forward'' for such women was ``not through Manchester, or Leeds, or Durham, or Bristol [``redbrick'' schools]; but through Oxford or Cambridge.''

The fate of these three, as we're told in the intrusive narrative style that Drabble has commended in Fielding and Thackeray and appropriated for her own work, ``should, therefore, be ... exemplary.''

Esther has carved out a niche as an art historian but remains unmarried, aloof, circumspect. Liz, a prosperous psychotherapist married to a television executive, sometimes feels like a scullery maid dressed up as a princess. Her marriage, which seems the very model of a modern partnership of separate-but-equals, is actually on the brink of dissolution.

And Alix, who has less of a social position but more of a social conscience, cannot help taking a slight satisfaction in Liz's plight.

Liz's sister, Shirley, still lives in the north, where she (rather than her professionally qualified sister) looks after their purportedly ``mad'' mother. Shirley's husband, Cliff, is a representative man of his time: ``Tory voter, small businessman, entrepreneur ... he continues to praise the government and to deride the left-wing Council which takes Meals on Wheels to his mother-in-law. He believes in the glamour, the logic, of the hard line. He is a desperately worried man. ... Occasionally ... it occurs to [him] that he may not, after all, be one of the fit.''

Alix and her husband, Brian, both trained to teach literature, have found no secure place and continue to drift from one unsuitable, uncertain job to the next. Brian still believes in the Labour cause, no matter how militant its means or futile its ends. Alix no longer shares his faith, but cannot bring herself to argue with him. At one point, she is moved to wonder, ``Where was a voice to speak for her, for England?''

Such is the character of this novel that Alix's question, read in context, seems poignant rather than pompous. Drabble has achieved a delicate balance between the private and public voices in describing a sense of loss that is personal as well as political.

True, the book has many flaws: The writing is loose and repetitive, the characterization often weak, the themes and story lacking a sharp focus. Yet there is something courageous about the way Drabble ventures into dangerously clich'ed territories - the three-women-who-met-at-college device; the rich-sister, poor-sister duo; the two nations, north and south theme - and invests them with the shimmer of genuine emotion.

Drabble wrote her Cambridge thesis on the poetry of Wordsworth. Like Wordsworth, she can be tedious and self-indulgent - even a little thick. Like him, she grew up in a time when it seemed ``bliss'' to be alive and ``to be young ... very Heaven.''

Like his generation, hers (and ours) has had the weight of political disillusionment added to the various burdens of personal loss, themes of ``The Prelude'' and ``Intimations of Immortality'' ode.

``The Radiant Way'' may lack the sublimity Wordsworth achieves in lines like ``What though the radiance which was once so bright/ Be now forever taken from my sight,'' - yet Drabble has something of his great power to make us feel.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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