Undue Influence, by Anita Brookner (Penguin, £6.99 in UK)


Often criticised for the narrowness of her theme, that of the sexual aspirations and tensions of solitary, middle-class Londoners who tend to be intellectually assured, well-groomed and miserable, Brookner is an intelligent realist with a refined understanding of emotional vulnerabilities and psychological turmoil at its most detached. She is also fascinated by power shifts within relationships. In this, her 19th novel in as many years, and one of her best, she allows her narrator, a self-possessed young woman who works in an antiquarian bookstore owned by two ancient spinster sisters, to analyse her needs with a blunt candour. Claire is a perceptive survivor, if not quite as insightful as she had thought. Brookner's prose style is more relaxed, less relentlessly epigrammatic than it had become, having obviously been revised, even remodelled. There is a twist, and although detectable from about midway, this is a dogged, clever novel sustained by an honest sense of outrage in which the determined narrator faces humiliation head on, learns something about herself, and ultimately earns our sympathy.