Friday, July 3, 2015

The Witch of Exmoor / Margaret Drabble 281 pp.

Recently stuck for a while in the Raleigh airport, I was thrilled to find a used bookstore. It was packed with a huge variety of titles, unlike a typical airport shop which offers ten different titles, eight of them by James Patterson. And so I serendipitously picked up this paperback by Drabble, an author of whom I was vaguely aware but had never read. (She is the sister of A.S. Byatt, but apparently they are estranged. At the moment I vote for Margaret.)

Frieda Haxby, a successful author and academic in her mid-sixties, is the Witch. She baffles and angers her three adult children by choosing to spend her later years alone in a mansion on an isolated and wild stretch of coastline. Frieda was at best a mediocre mother, and her children are primarily concerned with her sizable inheritance and whether she will fritter it away in her apparent madness. Much of the narrative concerns these three prosperous families in mid-nineties England, and their individual and collective musings about fate and the power of social class and environment on human development. Yet it's very entertaining, with loads of biting dialogue and very astute social observation, as well as plain good humor. There is mystery as well: who is living in son Daniel's attic? when Frieda disappears from her home, has she been murdered? and what happened to Frieda's sister, dead thirty years earlier? Drabble uses an omniscient narrator who talks directly to the reader in a way that could have been gimmicky but that I found delightful. A cynical and sharp tale with just a bit of sweetness at the center.

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