the guardian Fri 25 September 2009
This welcome reissue begins with timid Harriet and feckless Vesey attracted to one another in prewar adolescence, but failing to act on it. When they meet again in middle age, he is a penniless actor and she is a suburban housewife, committed to saving face at the local WI. ("'It is all my world!' she seemed to declare. 'To make a really spongy sponge-cake my whole ambition!' When she reached home, she would despise herself, and idly wonder if any of the others were playing the same game.") The couple's brief encounters occur on freezing park benches, in fogbound train stations and dusty teashops. Not much happens, for this is a merciless anatomy of spiritual paralysis where tiny gestures carry great significance: "The way in which a hand is lifted in farewell, may have been learnt, determined, unfolded in the womb." How we cope with those determinations and whether we locate the moral courage required to alter them is Taylor's real subject here. This is a deliberately quiet novel and a very impressive one, too.