Look at me | Anita Brookner

Like the book’s heroine, Frances, I once worked in the library of a mental health institution, and also like Frances, lived in the faded grandeur of Maida Vale. However I didn’t have an ancient family retainer to do my cooking and cleaning, alas; I was also far from wealthy, and never became the plaything of glamorous socialites, so that’s where our similarity ends.

Apart from very mixed feelings about solitude, that is. The blessing and curse of solitude underpin everything in this novel, from Frances’ tentative writing career, to her painfully reserved relationships with others, to her self-image as a well-behaved but needy child. Although the social situations and dynamics don’t always ring true for me, Frances’ solitary interiority, which forms most of the narrative, is all too real. She is a fascinating, complicated, wonderfully drawn character: deeply stoical, overly dutiful, maddeningly unassertive, mildly delusional – and horribly relatable.    

Glittering new friends and an apparent love interest give her the hope of a new life and new start that she craves – but also prevent her from writing, which formerly gave meaning to her watchful outsider’s life. Being an invisible observer means she can be a writer. But being invisible is no longer enough – hence the title. But to be a writer is also to demand ‘Look at me’. In this sense the novel takes place in a psychological hall of mirrors, in which the reader is also uncomfortably reflected, and the psychological complexity of this deceptively slight story is what made it for me such an immensely rich read. Despite its pervasive melancholy, there are plenty of moments of wry humour in the narrative, which writers and librarians in particular will savour. I did, anyway. (Look at me…)

Frances’ forensic tone, maintained throughout her rigidly controlled narrative of self-abasement, rejection and abandonment, drops for just one chilling moment in a line towards the end. And it comes like a punch in the gut. Simply:

“I get things wrong, you see.”