Book reviews: Sanctuary | Asunder | Jawbone lake

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ROBERT EDRIC is one of the most remarkable novelists writing today. He is a demanding writer, one who doesn’t repeat himself and who requires close attention from his readers.

Sanctuary

by Robert Edric

Doubleday, 304pp, £17.99

The effort is rewarding. His style is laconic, often abrupt, and the world he portrays is usually bleak. The cold wind of the north blows through his fiction.

Sanctuary is, however, more immediately accessible than some of his fiction. The subject is well-suited to his talents, Narrated in the first person, it is the story of the last months of Branwell Brontë, a story of promise never fulfilled, of a life that is generally seen to have been wasted, a tale of self-destruction.

Branwell had talent, charm and intelligence, but made nothing of his life. The contrast with his sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, is painful, all the more so because he was once the bright hope of the family, the marvellous boy. When the novel begins, he is back at the parsonage in disgrace, having failed at everything – his job on the railways, his literary career, his work as a tutor. The last ended when he had an affair with Lydia Robinson, his employer’s wife. He still languishes for her, but Charlotte, the strongest-minded of the sisters, tells him bluntly he is wasting his time in idle dreams, guilty once more of the self-deception which had blighted his life, and the family’s. His life now seems aimless. He no longer attends church, to his loving father’s dismay. He frequents public-houses with friends who have likewise gone astray, and has debts everywhere.

Stevenson, in a youthful essay on the great fifteenth century French poet Villon, scapegrace and criminal, doomed to die on the gallows, wrote with a certain Presbyterian smugness (which I have always hoped he came to regret): “For a man who is greedy for all pleasures, and provided with little money and less dignity of character, we may prophesy a safe and speedy voyage downward.” This is the story of Branwell Brontë too, and it is the voyage downward that Robert Edric presents us with. But there is no comparable smugness in the picture he offers. Instead he writes with sympathy and understanding.

Branwell behaves shabbily. He has occasion for shame, and feels ashamed; and yet, even in the deepest moments of humiliation, he retains a gallant and tattered dignity. Edric does him justice and that is the best any of us can hope for.

He also, remarkably, contrives to make him more interesting than his sisters, though he is fair to them too, as to their equally remarkable father. The sisters all love Branwell and are all exasperated by him, especially Charlotte, the least loving but most managing. who takes responsibility for his debts, for the sake of their father and the family’s reputation. Yet it is, not surprisingly, Emily among the sisters, rather than the dominating Charlotte or the more sympathetic Anne, who comes up with the most striking image for Branwell’s failure: “she told me that…. my hope was like an abandoned and rotted nest, empty and ready to crumble in the first strong wind”.

Edric also very persuasively sets this domestic tragedy – for Branwell’s story is tragic – in the context of the times, of the spreading of industry in the northern towns and cities, the railway boom, the destruction of old ways of rural life.

All this disturbs the Reverend Patrick Brontë, devoted to his poor parishioners, and assiduous in his practical Christianity. Paradoxically, it is Branwell’s failure that is the most in tune with the new world of early Victorian England; he has happy memories of his employment on the railways.

There are wonderful scenes, especially one in which Emily is walking on the moors and Branwell is sent in search of her .”Everything,” she tells him, “is lost. Surely you can see that? You of all people?” Then, for the first time, one of his sisters refers to the novels they have published. “We thought only to spare your feelings”, Emily says. There could be no clearer or more touching acknowledgement of the mess he had made of his life. But out of that mess Robert Edric has made a work of art.

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Penelope Fitzgerald

by Hermione Lee

(Vintage, £10.99)

Star rating: ****

Penelope Fitzgerald, says Hermione Lee, was a great writer, who didn’t start to writing seriously until she was 60. Before this she had a life of ups and downs. She was a clever girl from an upper middle-class family who married Desmond Fitzgerald, who drank, and was convicted of obtaining money by means of forged cheques. The Fitzgeralds lived in a barge on the Thames and then a council flat before Desmond died of bowel cancer. After this, Penelope wrote nine understated novels about loss, winning the Booker Prize for Offshore, a story about a houseboat that sinks. Superb.

Asunder

by Chloe Aridjis

(Vintage, £8.99)

Star rating: ****

In this novel you know something creepy is going to happen and you keep wondering what it’s going to be and then you realise it’s been happening all along. Marie, a quiet and alienated young woman, lives in Islington and works at the National Gallery. At home she makes miniature artworks peopled with dead moths. At work she becomes fascinated by the way paintings decay – she’s big on “craquelure”, the science of cracking paint and is interested in people who attack paintings. Then she goes to France with a peculiar poet called Daniel. A dark tale, nicely turned.

Jawbone Lake

by RAY ROBINSON

(Windmill, £8.99)

Star rating: ****

At six in the morning, Joe gets a call in London from his mother. She tells him that his father, a wealthy financier, appears to have driven into a lake in Derbyshire. So he goes back home to see his mum and his grandfather and find out what happened. What he finds is a cold place, craggy and lonely and full of unanswered questions – like what, exactly, was his father doing in the south of Spain? This sounds like thriller material, but it’s dense and thoughtful, from the author of Electricity and Forgetting Zoe.

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