Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Image result for hotel du lac bookIt's ridiculous that I'd never read Hotel du Lac, Anita Brookner's award-winning modern classic, before, but I finally got round to it this year.

It's short but not slight, a quick read in which not a word is wasted. Edith Hope, a writer of popular romance novels, arrives at a genteel Swiss hotel just out of season, after an affair with a married man and a resulting scandal. Her friends have, after a particularly embarrassing and initially undisclosed incident, dispatched her sternly off to reflect away from their social circle. The rest of the novel deals with Edith's thoughts on her affair, the nature of marriage and relationships and society's expectations of her as a single woman approaching middle-age who bears a passing physical resemblance to Virginia Woolf. There's also Edith's perceptive analyses of the other guests - most of whom are women, but one of whom, Mr Neville, is a man who takes something of a shine to her. Throughout the book Edith writes letters to David, her married lover, in which she shares her acerbically witty observations.

The stifling, old-school gentility of the hotel is perfectly evoked - time passes slowly and the sense of dread that Edith feels at having to go downstairs to the lounge and risk conversing with the other, mostly appalling, residents is almost palpable. And yet, as her stay continues and the guests get to know each other a little more, the atmosphere shifts slightly and manners start to slip. The characters are vividly drawn, but stop short of caricature.

Hotel du Lac is a quiet, thoughtful book. Much is understated and it's very funny, but there is also a strong undercurrent of sadness to it, and it also raises some interesting questions about the expectations on women, particularly of a certain class, to conform. Edith, whose living is after all writing about romance and happy endings, is torn between her obvious love for David and her general pragmatism and practicality, which tells her that the affair will almost certainly go nowhere. Does she resign herself to a man who will almost certainly never leave his wife, or does she resign herself to a life lived alone? Or is there, as Mr Neville suggests, the possibility of a middle ground?

Hotel du Lac reminded me in many ways of Barbara Pym. Although it was published in the mid-1980s and is presumably meant to take place contemporaneously, it felt to me like something written earlier than that - and in a good way. There are certainly elements that make it more modern than Pym's work but the social comedy, the astute observation and the viewpoint of a single woman looking in from the outside are all there.

Apparently, there was some fuss when Hotel du Lac won the Booker Prize, with Brookner beating JG Ballard among others, because some critics thought it to be too flimsy. Personally, I don't think this criticism would have been levelled at a male writer who had written a similarly short, bittersweet comic novel about marriage and relationships, one with a male lead. It's a low-key novel and an effortless read, but it says more and gives more pleasure in its 150-odd pages than many Booker winners manage to do in 500.