10 OCTOBER 1987, Page 38

Mysterious affairs in style

Anita Brookner


Viking, £10.95

Here is something defiantly unfashion- able and supremely well carried out, a novel that is the first of a series which will deal with the lives of four friends over a period stretching from 1953 to the present day. The four friends are four women who meet as schoolgirls, but for once the formula is sunk in the matrix of another formula, that of a great house and its bizarre inhabitants. The nightmarish weekend spent at Lovegrove by Jenny Carter, the narrator, forms a very success- ful separate novel, and the considerable unease experienced by Jenny is foisted effortlessly onto the reader, who may have expected something like Le Grand Meaulnes but who ends up panting for release and the safety of the Portobello Road. 'Period' details merely intensify the strangeness of the narrative. Gravely, and almost classically, in long winding sent- ences, Emma Tennant conveys one defini- tively away from everything that can be thought of as home, and a sense of displacement, intensified by the bewilder- ing topography of the great house and its proliferating gardens, is underlined by the inordinate behaviour of its owners, all of whom confound the expectations of the unprepared guest, herself only too willing to experience the glamour that surrounds the daughter of the house, Amy Rudd.

'The daughter of the house' is an old- fashioned phrase that perfectly describes Amy, who is several cuts above the other girls who vie for her friendship at St Peter's School. None of these other girls could be described in such a manner. Jenny lives with Aunt Babs who has an antiques stall in the Portobello Road. Candida's parents are German refugees, while no one knows where Carmen comes from, and she is such a liar anyway that anything and nothing about her might be true. Carmen is the sort of girl who is old before her time: there is one in every class in every girls' school, outrageous, fearless, subversive, doomed to be the hanger-on of artists and ultimate- ly unfriendly to women. Although it was Candida who hoped for the invitation to Lovegrove, Amy's house, it was Jenny Carter on whom the honour finally fell, and the honour turned out to be a dubious one. Between her arrival, and her fleeting sense of recognition of Lovegrove as the sort of ideal home she has never had herself, and her appalled induction into certain matters which are perhaps the secret of great houses and noble families, the narrative takes one deeper into the semi-farcical but altogether frightening im- broglios that constitute — again, perhaps — life in such places. The total lack of Innocence encountered by the innocent narrator is never explained, merely stated as fact. A hard grasp of the realities of money is the only matter of substance that would be recognised by the outside world. Everything else is a mystery.

Jenny is no child narrator in a nest of gentlefolk. To begin with, they are far from gentle. On the first evening a naked figure is discerned in a clump of bamboo: this is the 'fast' woman guest who is allowed to sleep with the host. To go on with, normal amenities are not observed: meals are interrupted by unwelcome arriv- als, drunken guests, and accidents such as slipping platters and hands accidentally plunged into containers of bread sauce. The absence of nourishment and the forced marches to different parts of the estate increase the discomfort of the child guest, who writes not as a child but as a particu- larly grave adult, looking back on this ordeal from a vantage point outside the time span of the novel. Indeed, the un- usually stately prose adds another dimen- sion to the feeling of alienation that steals over the reader, forced into this weekend which promises to be all that the narrator wants it to be and discovering with her that some invitations are better left unrealised. The shock at the end is a powerful coup de theatre.

While waiting for one of these elusive meals Jenny comes ceaselessly upon the unexpected. The reader may experience some sense of contrivance with the arrival of Candida and Carmen, both trailing affairs of which Jenny knew nothing. Can- dida arrives with the art expert who is supposed to be cataloguing the collection, while Carmen is to be found in the com- pany of Bernard Ehrlich, one of those painters who wrench the human form apart: his portrait of a wrenched-apart Carmen, vulva well to the fore, is one of the jewels of the Lovegrove collection. The host and hostess are magnificently imper- vious to all or any of this. Indeed, imper- meability seems to be their major charac- teristic. This disposes them to strange forms of hospitality. Disliking most of their guests, they manage to ignore the others.

And still the guests come, all defiantly outside what anyone in the Portobello Road would consider to be the norm. Their strangeness is both accepted and disre- garded. Finally these people understand each other because there are no rules. The absence of rules is as bewildering as the extent of the estate, which is both vast and eccentric. All landmarks have dis- appeared.

Recollected in the tranquillity that com- es from the measured sentences, the mysterious affairs that take place in the house of hospitalities — the least hospit- able house imaginable — remain discon- certing. It is to Emma Tennant's credit that she invests none of this with the clichés of adolescent awakening, although the weekend embodies a classic rite of passage from childhood into the future. What the future holds will be revealed in the forth- coming volumes. The House of Hospitali- ties constitutes a more than satisfying beginning.