Margaret Drabble’s prose demands courage and persistence from any reader not pursuing a master of arts in English literature. Her 10th novel— The Radiant Way, the story of Liz, Alix and Esther, three female Cambridge University alumnae —is thick with adjectives and larded with passages reminiscent of 19th-century fiction: “ T would like,’ said Liz, staring into the white flaming chalky cracked pitted flaring columns of the gas fire, ‘to make sense of things. To understand.’ ” But past the 100-page mark the book gathers speed. Drabble’s prose ceases to be hard work and develops into an engrossing voyage into English society in the 1980s, a landscape of dissension, turbulence and doubt.
The Radiant Way is the title of the children’s primer that Liz used years ago at school in England’s industrial North. It is also the name of an idealistic documentary on education that was the first television program pro-
duced by her husband, Charles. Now it is 1979. Liz is 45, a successful Harley Street psychiatrist; Charles is a disillusioned TV executive. Contemplating the guest list for their New Year’s Eve party, Liz wonders why it includes Lady Henrietta Latchett, who always manages to remind Liz of her own peasant background. Only minutes into the new decade, Liz confronts reality:
Drabble describes En -glish society with Dickensian sweep: the New Right, the Falklands War, breakfast TV
Charles, her partner for 21 years in a pragmatic, now-celibate marriage, is sleeping with Lady Henrietta and plans divorce. And Liz, for whom insight is an essential professional tool, had not guessed the truth. Welcome to the 1980s.
Although readers will come to know Liz and her efforts to maintain equi-
librium exceedingly well, the book is not only her story. Flashbacks illuminate the lives of Esther, a respected bohemian art critic with a whiff of incest in her background, and Alix, who after graduation is drawn to work with the disadvantaged. Drabble’s richly detailed portraits fairly vibrate on the page—even the social-climbing Charles, who ultimately suffers at the icy hands of Henrietta.
Drabble’s principal theme is change—and its effects on contemporary society. She describes the England around her with Dickensian sweep: the New Right, the Falklands War, new technology, breakfast-time TV. But her book is also about the meaning of safety and danger, and the impossibility of knowing which state prevails. And it is about the roads that connect people to their pasts and shape their routes into the future.
There are passages so powerful that the temptation to stop the nearest person and read aloud to them is at times overwhelming. And in the end even the dense Drabblian thickets—sometimes running to more than 200 words per sentence—are among the journey’s pleasures. The Radiant Way is a demanding, risk-taking and rewarding masterpiece.
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