Many of you will know Muriel Spark from her novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ – especially if you’ve ever studied Literature in Scotland. Her work is regarded as sacrosanct north of the border; everyone loves the local girl done good from Bruntsfield, Edinburgh, which happens to be where I was living this time last year. (Two literary superstars. Lucky Bruntsfield!).
Loitering With Intent filled a couple of my afternoons on the Isle of Arran over the new year. A small cottage literally packed to the rafters with nine people, on an island with a total population of just over 5,000, miles from even the nearest hamlet, was a pretty good setting in which to be reading a book about an insular social group. Fleur, our protagonist, takes a job at the ‘Autobiographical Association’, under the direction of its enigmatic founder Sir Quentin Oliver. All of her time outside work is taken up by her writing, chiefly her novel ‘Warrender Chase’. Warrender Chase is named after its main character, but just FYI Warrender Park Road and Warrender Park Crescent are streets very close to where Spark grew up, and I don’t believe for a second that ‘chase’ happening to be another street type was a coincidence.
The Autobiographical Association is populated by various society types who want to pen their scandalous life stories, but then file them away – only to be published when the folk implicated in said scandals are dead and gone. Fleur is thrilled; it provides boundless inspiration for her novel. But the lines between fiction and reality start to get blurry (maybe this is what Robin Thicke was really talking about?), Fleur’s bitchy diary of a novel gets discovered, Sir Quentin turns out to be even more deranged than everyone thought, and things basically get in a mess.
Loitering With Intent brings me on to a topic I surprisingly haven’t yet covered on Brewandbook: unreliable narrators. The plot of this book was alright, the characters were fine, but the way Spark handled the buildup of distrust and dislike for our narrator and protagonist Fleur was outstanding. She contradicts herself at every page turn. She behaves judgmentally and nastily to those around her but describes these events gleefully, either blind to or in denial of the fact that she has behaved contemptibly. It’s clear enough through the fog of her version of events that she is delusional – that we’re not getting the big picture. But, then again, it’s clear enough that the others in the Association are truly pretty unsavoury characters. So it’s pretty hard to piece together the reality of the situation – creating those blurred lines we all hate so much, but must admire as a display of an author’s skill. It complimented perfectly the book’s themes of art imitating life, and vice-versa.
I thought Loitering With Intent was better than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but that’s no glowing praise of the former as I didn’t like the latter much. I will concede, however, that Spark is a great manipulator of her narrators.
I’ve finished this and want something similar:
Try ‘The Edible Woman’ by Margaret Atwood.
What do you think?
All my Scottish lit students holla at me in the comments.
Artwork Credit: Lady Godiva by Alfred Joseph Woolmer