The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble (Weidenfeld, £10.95)
WHEN softly-spoken southerners politely, yet mockingly, ask if everyone in the north eats "chips for tea", I am never sure whether to laugh at them, with them, or simply strangle them. Now, I will resort to recommending Margaret Drabble's latest novel.
The north-south divide is one of its themes, albeit a minor one, anicl is clearly shown to be a phenomenon of relative wealth and/or poverty, rather than one concerning the absurdities of social custom..
The three central women characters in this plot are northern-born and bred, but in fact could come from anywhere. It is the manner rather than the location of their upbringing that concerns the author, and which shapes their future lives — Liz Headleand, successful Harley Street psychiatrist and socialite born out of scholarship girl who made it big at Cambridge and refuses to look back; Alix Bowen, less resolute, more principled but less able; Esther Breuer, electing for the untroubled waters of art history and things esoteric.
The cover of The Radiant Way announces it as a novel, presumably lest anyone of the many admirers of Ms Drabble's editing of the Oxford Companion Guide to English• Literature take this for another work of similarly outstanding scholarship.
But in a certain way this is more scholarship than novel. Without wanting to coin the sort or pretentious phrase I'm sure the author herself would abhor, this is a social history of middle class England in the early 1980s.
A noble undertaking, and we see here how Thatcher's Britain has replaced the more concerned, collective days of social cohesion in the 1970s with its ideals of selfish, individualistic and ultimately divisive and destructive conservatism.
One occasionally gets hints of where Ms Drabble's sympathies lie. I associate her in my mind with Alix Bowen's concern for her fellow man and his/her wellbeing, and with this character's political compromises — but Margaret Drabble is not a writer who can be so easily pinned down and pigeon-holed.
In a sense noble and lasting then, but in total a flawed undertaking for in its ambitiously wide scope, the social and historial narrative swamps the novel, lesser characters become caricatures of social attitudes. And it all peters out rather inconclusively — one almost sensed that it needed that oft-used TV adage — "to be continued" — on the final page.