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High Tea, Deep Rage : HEAT WAVE. By Penelope Lively (HarperCollins: $22, 215 pp.)

September 29, 1996|Fay Weldon | Fay Weldon's books include "Splitting," "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil" and, most recently, "Worst Fears."

A very English novel this, in every sense of the word. Well-behaved, a trifle Austenish, a fraction insular, perfect in its manners, courteous to the reader in its carefulness, the sharpened paper knife well hidden beneath the elegant sleeve and, in its controlled and smiling eloquence, to my mind the most accomplished novel to come out of Britain this year.

"Heat Wave" observes the English literary classes at work, at play and in emotional pain. It is set in the stillness of the English countryside, in an old stone cottage, World's End, which stands in the middle of a wheat field. "Pauline knows this field intimately--its range of mood and colour, its seasonal changes. It is growing wheat--winter wheat, which at this May moment is a rich green pelt."

We watch the seasons change as we watch the changing seasons of love. Pauline is copy editing an over-the-top historical novel on the subject of romantic love. "Unquenchable, irresistible love." Sharing the cottage for the summer are her daughter Teresa, her little grandson Luke and her self-satisfied son-in-law Maurice, who is writing an allegedly controversial book on the myths of the rural paradise and the horrors of Theme Park Heritage. (England, having little to offer the world these days but its writers and its history, makes a good living selling the latter as a tourist attraction.) Under Pauline and Teresa's nose, Maurice the unguilty and ever-happy, falls in love and lust with Carol, his guest and his publisher's wife, and the pain of watching it is exquisite.

A very English novel, indeed, in its ability to disturb by understatement: This portrait of a world where the noisy emotions the therapists would have us shriek aloud must be bitten back, not spoken aloud, and are the more real for it. Where the sheer embarrassment of witnessing the disappointment in love of the daughter is almost the worst thing about being a mother; where, when Pauline catches Carol and Maurice holding hands, "Carol does not move. She has seen what it is in Pauline's face and she does not at once look away but stares for an instant--a blue stare which is a bland declaration of hostilities. This is the way it is, says Carol's stare. This is the way it is going to be. Sorry, and all that--but this is how things are. Pauline walks out of the room."

For Pauline has been through it all herself: She is an expert at jealousy, that very English emotion for which there is no cure, other than to abjure sexual love altogether--which of course nowadays many of the not-English do.

"I can't be jealous now," thinks Pauline, "who once was a jealousy expert. Who knew every refinement of jealousy, every manner, every convoluted ingenious twist of the jealousy business. But she cannot talk thus to Teresa, because she never has done. Instead she inquires about beaches, shopping malls, the climate, and sees Teresa's relief that the minefield has been negotiated." Nothing will be said. The work is Jamesian--that most English of American writers--in its complexities and its carefulness.

"Heat Wave" is a slim, unbulky novel written, I suspect, by hand, since Lively, who won 1987's Booker Prize for her novel "Moon Tiger," began writing in the '70s, well before the new technology of narrative became commonplace; before computers; before it was as easy to write two words as one; before today's ease of editing, which forbids the implicit but insists on the explicit. (Thus the contemporary writer, reading through the first draft: "I don't think I've made that quite clear; let me rewrite it; let me just set that paragraph before this: easy-peasey") so that now over-self-editing is as much of a disaster for a book as ever under-self-editing was, and the thoroughly word-processed novel reads more like a rather too long piece of journalism, albeit the journalism of the heart, than the imaginative, elusive, evocative and disturbing exercise that is fiction at its best.

No sign in "Heat Wave," either, of likeness to those novels that these days pour out of the creative writing course, beautifully written but with every sentence, every sentiment, passed by the group for proper expression and sensibility, politically and emotionally correct, ultimately boring. Once, women, financially dependent upon men, were obliged to write genteel novels, poetic novels, angel-of-the-house novels, rooted not in the imagination but in experience--"Miss Austen, please keep to what you know"--novels that could only reflect well upon their femininity. We are back to that again, I fear, but it is the censure not of patriarchy that oppresses us, but that of other women, in the very excess of female empathy that constitutes political correctness. Lively is not so oppressed: She writes as she finds the condition of man and woman to be, from her own vision, unafraid. The world as it is, not as it would be nice if only it were so.

There may well be an autobiographical content here--hard to believe there is not--but it is properly transmuted into fiction. Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquillity." Well, the comparative tranquillity of this stone cottage set in the English countryside, where the wheat field is to be finally harvested: "The combines are creeping nearer to World's End. The thump-thump has reached the top of the hill. And thus the days unfurl. Tight, tense days. Blue and gold days in which the sun pours down." The weather breaks in a storm to beat all storms. Pauline finds the way to save her daughter. A lovely, lovely novel.

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