Magazine article The Spectator

Deth in the Sun Postponed

Magazine article The Spectator

Deth in the Sun Postponed

Article excerpt

Death in the sun postponed Anita Brookner THE LAST RESORT by Alison Lurie

Chatto, L15.99, pp. 254

Into the stagy, semi-tropical setting of Key West - frangipani, hibiscus, bougainvillea, mosquito nets - come two refugees from the icy campus of Convers College, many miles to the north in New England. They are a respectable married couple, Wilkie Walker, famous naturalist and ecologist, heroic populariser and signer of books, and his submissive wife Jenny who does most of his research and all of his secretarial work. He is 70 and, although his wife is ignorant of the fact, a troubled man. He suspects that he may have a mortal illness (illness abounds in this novel, although it is dealt with rather cutely) and is wondering how to effect his suicide in such a way that it will not adversely affect his reputation.

Since the layout of Key West lends itself to such accidents he has determined simply to swim out to sea and let nature take its course. Nature will do that anyway, but he knows too much about nature, having spent his entire professional life patronising endangered species. It has only now occurred to him that he is an endangered species in his own right, as, apparently, are all the other inhabitants of Key West, the arthritic, the HIV positive, the extremely stupid. This last category is signalled by its ill-matched clothing and its inability to finish its sentences. Jenny herself may be extremely stupid, although she can whip up a dinner party for eight at the last minute and will eventually discover Wilkie's true nature in the not quite time-honoured way of women in contemporary novels. In all her manifestations Jenny has Alison Lurie's full backing.

Not so Wilkie Walker, who is selfish and expansive, a figurehead in his day, but, as an acid young journalist informs him, no longer flavour of the month. His work on the salt marsh mouse has brought him immense acclaim and his opus on the copper beech may bring him more. But now he has weightier matters to consider, such as the correct timing of his descent into oblivion. Jenny will be all right, he thinks: he has left her plenty of tasks to be getting on with, and she has never objected to passages of her own writing appearing under his name. At this point the reader may wonder whether any woman, today, in America, would allow herself to be quite so typecast. This is an old-fashioned comedy, in which misunderstandings abound and it is taken for granted that a wife will never ask her husband a simple question. Why has he become so objectionable? Why does he not speak to her? The reader knows that he is biding his time until he can disappear, leaving all those promised speaking engagements unfulfilled: no more book signings, no more appearances on television. …

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