The Bay of Angels tells the story of a woman’s journey to adulthood, with particular focus on her relationship with her mother. Having been brought up single-handedly by a lonely and isolated mother, Zoe finds herself similarly secluded. With her mother’s remarriage, their consequent move to France and the sudden death of her new Stepfather, Zoe is left caring for her ill mother and struggling to establish a home or identity for herself.
The plot is touching yet a little simple, in fact nothing truly groundbreaking ever happens. However, the reassurance of honesty in the sleepy daily events of Brookner’s narrative makes for a relaxed and comfortable read. For those wanting action and excitement this book would undoubtedly disappoint but I was surprisingly content to amble along with Zoe as she progressed on her unremarkable journey. There is a focus on routine and the mundane features of daily life, thus portraying the protagonist as a female contemporary Robinson Crusoe. Due to the lack of overly dramatic action, the plot is entirely believable, which on the one hand allowed me to become fully immersed in the events that were slowly taking place, yet also left me feeling somewhat drained by the end of the novel; I felt like I had also endured her tedious and unfortunate life and was therefore left emotionally spent and a little depressed. Thus, the missing element in The Bay of Angels is certainly escapism. When reading a novel I want to be looking down upon the unfortunate lives of characters from an external platform, (fully appreciating that it isn’t me!) and not feeling as if I need psychological support for my social seclusion, the death of my step-father and the slow, painful deterioration of my Mother’s sanity. I suppose this can be seen from two extremes; Brookner has been entirely successful in leading the reader to emphasise and relate to poor Zoe’s turmoil, however sometimes a few exciting yet unrealistic events work wonders in instilling a sense of schadenfreude!
Much like the plot, Brookner has kept things simple with her choice of character. She focuses on Zoe and the few staple figures in her life, largely her mother, stepfather and Dr Balbi (her mothers doctor and Zoe’s potential love interest.) Other characters are mentioned in passing but we are given little insight in to background, characteristics or physical appearance; perhaps this reflects Zoe’s distanced state of mind. It is refreshing to not be bombarded with the names and details of many pointless characters as it allows the reader to emotionally connect with those few that are truly significant.
Brookner has a fluid style with little ambiguity or superfluous vocabulary, allowing for an easy and straightforward read. However, in terms of sentence content and allocation there is definitely too much focus on emotion. Whenever anything significant happens (which it rarely does!) Zoe tells us how she feels about it, which is to be expected of the main protagonist. Yet she then continues to describe why she feels this way, what significance these feelings have and then in a bizarre twist, ends up talking herself in to feeling another way about the original event. So in the space of a few pages Zoe’s view on a rather inconsequential incident will have altered dramatically, merely because of some emotional rambling. Maybe Brookner intentionally created an over-sensitive and indecisive character to highlight her vulnerability, however I just found it to be highly tedious and frustrating. Further irritating aspects are the many long sentences, which could easily be made more succinct and the rejection of grammatical conventions such as starting a sentence with ‘And.’ These sentences are randomly placed with no particular relevance or reason and are therefore just annoying. One final criticism falls on Zoe’s frequent moral questioning, which suggests Brookner is trying to promote a sense of improvement in the reader, much like the 19th Century Bildungsroman. However, this does not seem to fit the contemporary setting and the modern readers requirement. As previously stated, I want to externally view the misfortune of others rather than work on my own self-conduct, morals and love life.
In conclusion, The Bay of Angels is neither offensive, nor exciting: it is somewhere in the middle and for this reason I cannot strongly recommend it. In my opinion, you would not miss out on anything if you didn’t read it and you would not gain much if you did!
- Chloë Wallis