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Likely Stories : The Debut, by Anita Brookner


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

One of my earliest discoveries of British Women writers was Anita Brookner.  Her novels are mostly short—under 200 pages—and she had a knack for delicate and detailed portraits of her characters.  She wrote twenty novels including her 1988 Booker Prize novel Hotel du Lac.  This was the first of hers I read and my earliest Booker Prize novel.  Anita died in 2016, and I have decided to resurrect some of her finest novels beginning with The Debut.


This novel, fraught with characters—some loveable, some dramatic, some helpful, and another frightfully annoying.  Brookner began, “Dr. [Ruth] Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. // In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education, which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit” (7).   I am sure my faithful listeners will notice my love of novels flooded with literature.

Ruth’s mother, Helen, was a noted actress who used her dramatic skills at every opportunity.  Anita wrote, “‘Darling heart’ called her mother, as she outlined her eyes with blue, watching her mouth uttering the words.  ‘Yes, darling,’ called George [her husband] admiring the fit of a new jacket, tying a silk scarf at his neck.  To the grandmother, they were fools” (17).

Ruth finally began college.  Brookner wrote, “The main advantage of being at college was that she could work in the library until nine o’clock.  She thus missed the evening performance in the flat in Oakwood Court, and discovered, with pleasure, that edible food was to be obtained in quite cheap restaurants.  Pleasure, in fact, seemed to be on the increase.  She was now able to feed and clothe herself, a fact which she felt she ought to be congratulated, not knowing it to be quite common.  She had, for the moment, no worries about money.  In her own eyes she was rich, and it was known—how she did not understand—that she was not on a grant, did not share a flat with five others, did not live in a Hall of Residence, and took abundant baths, hot water being the one element of life at home that Mrs. Cutler could not modify” (30).  As Hellen sank into drugs, one cigarette after another with alcohol, she confined herself to bed.  Her father began a dalliance with a woman who operated a bookstore.  As Chinua Achebe wrote, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”

All in all, The Debut by Anita Brookner is a novel--in the words of Mary Gordon—“Deft, lively, and quite touching.”  I am sure you will find many hours of delightful reading.  5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.