A Prince Charming tale with a twist of emotional turmoil

It's become a cliche to call Anita Brookner the modern Henry James, but with her latest novel, she's outdone the fusty old master. Some future genius will have to be called the modern Anita Brookner.

"The Bay of Angels," her 20th elegant novel, perfects an examination of loneliness that threatened to grow monotone in her last few books. Yet here, remarkably, she makes another quantum leap into psychological depth, splitting the atoms of human nature and tracing the particles that veer off.

Her narrator is a compulsively analytical young woman named Zoe Cunningham. She lives in quaint isolation on the margins of life and London with her widowed mother, "a woman in embryo."

Despite their static circumstances, Zoe is sustained by the lessons of those earliest books, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, and later by the stories of travail and triumph by Charles Dickens.

"I was willing to believe in the redeeming feature," she notes wistfully, "the redeeming presence that would justify all of one's vain striving, would dispel one's disappointments, would in some mysterious way present one with a solution in which one would have no part, so that all one had to do was to wait, in a condition of sinless passivity, for the transformation that would surely take place."

When a wealthy, older man falls in love with her mother, the fairy godmother seems to have come through after all.

Simon is loving, generous, and paternal, just the sort of gentleman to whom Zoe can relinquish her gentle mother and go off to live a modern, liberated life. "It was providential," she writes. "All seemed to agree on that point."

Simon moves Mrs. Cunningham to his modern villa in Nice, France, sets Zoe up with her own flat, and all live happily ever after.

"Though it satisfied the requirements of legend," Zoe concedes darkly, "it made me aware of what all the stories left out, namely the facts of what happened next. The stories had ended on the highest possible note, whereas what they should have indicated was the life that followed."

Indeed, what follows in this novel is rather sad. Simon suddenly dies and his affluence evaporates. Zoe and her mother find themselves without money or a place to live. More ominous, though, her mother's energy begins seeping away.

Visiting her in a sanatorium, Zoe finds herself riding conflicting currents of love and dread. She's wholly devoted, but she resents the loss of freedom, the burdensome need to parent the parent. As Zoe travels back and forth between London and Nice, the circumference of her own life begins to shrink toward the center of her mother's health.

Her emotional turmoil is compounded by the Kafkaesque treatment she receives from the doctors and nurses and the thicket of old-fashioned attitudes held by other women at the nursing home.

This may sound dreary in summary, but Brookner's wit glows like a kind of background radiation that charges everything here - even the tragedy. She has never been more clearsighted, more compellingly brilliant.

When Zoe begins seeing her mother's doctor, a man who "gave the impression of having worn a double-breasted suit from a tender age," the fairy tale threatens to rise up again, but Zoe won't fall for that. Somehow, she must negotiate the old desire for male salvation and the modern insistence on barren autonomy.

It's a conundrum worthy of Brookner's relentless analysis, and it eventually yields, if not an answer, at least profound insight.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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