Kate Fenton reviews The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble
There's something seductive about a novel
in diary form, don't you think? That instant, cosy intimacy with
the narrator, the reassuring expectation of a chronological order
to events? Not, of course, that there's much cosy about Margaret
Drabble. She's like the most dauntingly brainy of your old friends
- only when reunited do you remember how entertaining she can be.
Thus with The Seven Sisters. The diarist, Candida Wilton,
is one of Drabble's women at awkward odds with the world. Divorced,
estranged from her daughters and, by her own assessment, "stranded,
useless, ageing, as on a high and dusty kitchen shelf", this
genteel headmaster's wife confounds everyone by settling in a two-room
eyrie in west London bedsitland, where she is by turn entranced,
repelled and baffled by the city.
So far, so much the territory of countless slush-pile manuscripts
penned by just such bewildered empty-nesters. But this is Drabble,
the gimlet-eyed chronicler of contemporary womanhood, and for all
we are asked to believe that our narrator is a sketchily educated
mouse, she packs a satisfyingly acerbic turn of phrase. Her unfaithful
husband is "in good taste". Her snobbish daughter has
married "the dull owner of many flat acres". Her health
club is filled with "bitter blondes and sad starers".
She may pepper her journal with coy schoolgirl French and quaintly
archaic margin-headings - she wonders if true change can still happen
at her age - but the reader is not deceived. Brains will out.
Moreover, Candida's haven of companionship in the urban wasteland
has been a Virgil study group, so amid the all-night groceries and
rubbish-strewn canals, she is busily discerning portents from the
gods. What's refreshing is her unquenchable if, on the face of it,
thoroughly dotty conviction that destiny is with her. By casting
herself headlong into the bleak nothingness of her present life,
she trusts she may yet discover something or someone waiting on
the far shore. And when the gods shower her with gold, in the form
of a hefty cheque from a building society takeover, she chooses
to retrace the voyage from Carthage to Italy of Aeneas and his followers
with her own assorted band of female friends. The ruling metaphor
is in place.
In truth, there's a dizzying pile-up of mythic allusions, not all
of which bear close investigation. Why the Seven Sisters? Because,
well, there are seven of them and they're female. Nevertheless,
Drabble layers the mythology with the mundane comedy of a bunch
of middle-aged women on holiday to beguiling effect. Wardrobe space
and dicky tummies jostle with Dido's grief and the Sybil's cryptic
utterances. The sisters swap sex secrets over aperitifs, but they
also swot up their classical texts under the benign guidance of
their own gin-swigging, card-toting sybil, Mrs Jerrold, a particularly
endearing old bird.
Perhaps the most telling image comes when the ladies are sufficiently
intoxicated by sun and sand to taste sea urchins. After the black,
spiky creatures have been cut open, and the innards swallowed alive,
they realise the discarded husks are teetering away on their spikes.
It's evening before anyone voices the obvious: are they themselves
like sea urchins? Dead inside, but still scuttling?
It says everything for this novel that you care deeply about the
answer. You hope, with Candida, that something indeed waits on the
far side. And, in joining her voyage, you brush up your Virgil (or
take a crash course); ponder the teleological argument for God;
agree that "sexy" is a curious adjective to be applied
to an egg-whisk and learn the meaning of "lumpen" (ragged).
Yes, Margaret Drabble is brainy, but she's terrific company.
©Kate Fenton 2000