Book Review: A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

If State of Change were a television programme it would be a prime time BBC Four flagship show, starring a big British name who wanted to prove their acting chops after a successful BBC One cult series. It would have the critics salivating before they’d even seen the preview tapes while, glass of Pinot Noir in hand, the Twitterati would be scratching its head hoping someone will admit to not understanding – or worse – liking – this very well crafted but odd programme – before they have to hint in 140 characters that they would rather be watching EastEnders.

Penelope Gilliatts A State of Change, first published in 1967, is stylish and sleek; it’s also sparse and ephemeral. It feels both dense and lightweight. There is little plot; this is a novel driven by cleverly crafted dialogue, witty bon mots and sharp observations. It reads like a Pinter or a Beckett play – still, yet restless, superficially devoid of meaning, but with each word creaking under the weight of its significance. Gilliatt was once a big literary name: if she were alive today, she would most likely have been among the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s shortlist. She was a hugely versatile writer with a massive brain – according to the lovely introduction to this (badly subbed) Capuchin Classic edition written by the brilliant Ali Smith, Gilliatt was believed to have had a higher IQ than Eistein. She was a journalist and film critic, most notably for The Observer and The New Yorker and she wrote short stories and novels, she even wrote an opera libretto.

She is best remembered best for her Oscar-nominated screenplay for John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. Sadly, Sunday Bloody Sunday aside, Gilliatt is now rather forgotten, her books mostly out of print. She’s probably more remembered for once being married to grumpy old playwright John Osborne. Reading A State of Change it’s easy to see why she has fallen out of favour with modern day literary lovers. It feels very much of its time, but not in that rather twee, rose-tinted way that we seem to prefer our 20th century novels to be. There’s no gripping plot, terrible secret or big reveal. It can be bewildering as characters drift in and out of half-remembered conversations. There are time shifts and sudden dramatic changes that unfold behind the scenes that we, the reader, are never party to. As Ali Smith explains in the introduction, one of Gilliatt’s literary quirks was a “mode of unexplaining”, influenced by the ambiguity of director Jean Renoir’s films.

A State of Change revolves around Kakia who leaves her native Poland after the war for drab, war-damaged London where she meets two friends, Don and Harry who she falls in love with, one after the other. The three of them stay close friends over the years, despite the obvious difficulties. There’s no mud-slinging or 4am whisky-fuelled confessions. We’re never told how each character feels; we are made to draw our own conclusions from their actions and interactions. This seeming randomness, this way of writing that not only reflects real life but also celebrates the beauty of writing beyond a structured beginning, middle and end, is out of step in a world where we demand absolute transparency in everything. But Giliatt deserves a better reception from the 21st century.

A State of Change isn’t a warm book, it’s frosty but fascinating, like a glamorous aloof friend ,and it’s a novel worth digging out if you’re a fan of words and graceful writing.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Forgotten Waltz, Anne Enright

ImageAnne Enright is a novelist of such skill she can turn the mundane, everyday domestic into something sad, powerful and beautiful.

The Forgotten Waltz follows the aftermath of an affair, told through the eyes of Gina Moynihan, an unremarkable thirty-something Dubliner who works as something in marketing.

In essence, it’s a simple story. Infidelity is a well-worn subject, but in Enright’s hands it becomes a dramatic, fascinating study of human fragility, greed, desire and love, in all its forms.

The story begins at the end. We find Gina waiting in her mum’s draughty former house to pick up her lover’s 12-year-old daughter from the bus stop. As the snow falls, she contemplates the path her life has taken – how did she find herself waiting for a man she barely knew a year ago’s child? Gina’s thoughts then drift to her first encounter with Seán Vallely a simple glance that couldn’t have foretold what was to come. It’s not love at first sight, nor the passionate Darcy-Elizabeth hate, he was simply, “The stranger I sleep besides now”.

The love affair between Gina and the man she eventually leaves her husband for isn’t the passionate, but doomed tale of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. It’s unsexy snatched encounters in bland airport hotel rooms, drunken fumbles at work conventions, all the while accompanied, not by a beating heart, but with a gnawing sadness, waves of guilt and a nagging feeling that the new life she’s started is as static, as undramatic, as her old one.

In a world where we’re still encouraged to believe that we will one day meet our soul mate’s eyes across a crowded room and live happily ever after, Enright writes about love, or perhaps more accurately, relationships, with a delft and accurate hand. There are no thunderbolts; Gina soon realises the man she’s left and the man she now lives with are interchangeable – even if one is better at housework.

The characters are all so wonderfully drawn. We’re never told what they’re explicitly like, but the picture Enright builds allows us to get to know them better than a thousand adjectives would. Gina is so whole and human I felt like I knew her; she’s flawed – often stupid, sometimes kind, envious, scornful of her sister’s Sunday supplement lifestyle, overly concerned with appearances and short on self-awareness.

Enright is a truly captivating writer, with a wonderful knack of saying something perfectly that I’ve only been able to half articulate before. From the description of her ‘pretty girl’ sister, to Gina’s, almost unconscious, musings on the love of her life, tinged as it is, with uneasiness.

There’s no resolution, Gina isn’t condemned and shunned for being a “fallen woman”, she’s just consigned to the ordinary life of a suburban Dubliner with a past and a future she has yet to reconcile. If only life could be as beautiful as Enright’s writing.

Suzanne Elliott