The Driver’s Seat

I’m…I’m honestly finding it difficult to work out where to start with this one. I loved the previous Muriel Spark book I read, and after reading this one I’ve certainly not been put off reading any of her other books, but this was…weird. Brilliant, in a lot of ways, but bizarre. Not “fun and kooky” type bizarre; more like “that’s-completely-out-of-the-blue-how-on-earth-was-I-supposed-to-expect-that” type bizarre. The Driver’s Seat is, unquestionably, a very dark book, but it has left me wracking my brain trying to work out what Spark is trying to say through it.

First off, a quick plot summary: Lise has decided to take a long-overdue holiday, and takes herself off to somewhere in the south of Europe on a soiree based entirely on the idea of letting go, of abandoning convention and living as freely as possible. We find out early on in the novel that Lise is going to be murdered by the novel’s end, as the narrative takes regular diversions to establish more about how she is found and how characters we are meeting will factor into the subsequent investigation. As a result, the story dwells less on creating suspense about what might happen, and instead leads the reader to question the events themselves as they unfold to reach their well-telegraphed ending.

Let’s begin with the good stuff. Spark knows how to write a short novel, and nowhere is this better showcased than in the book’s punchily concise yet surprisingly informative opening. Her language choices and use of colour to connote emotions are consistently engaging, and well-suited to a short form novel. Her knack for dialogue is also straight-up wonderful, especially within poignant conversations where both participants talk but neither of them listen.

Now to the stuff I didn’t like so much. Firstly, the character of Lise was a very strange person to spend the novel with, as you might be able to tell from this description of her:

“Her lips are slightly parted: she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually, except for the months of illness, since she was 18, that is to say, for 16 years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and judging mouth, a precision instrument.”

The reader’s engagement with the story hinges on their understanding that her actions are out of character for her, but when you’ve not really spent any time with her beforehand, that’s quite difficult to wrap one’s head around. Also, her lips are a recurring motif used to express her emotional state, and I’m not too sure why – and rereading that quote, I just realised how often it’s used throughout the narrative and how weird it is…

But the main problem with the book is this: the entire story leans so heavily on the ending, with its well-placed foreshadowings and its steady build up to its denouement, that the book reaches a fever pitch by the final five pages that can only be satisfied by an impossibly ingenious conclusion. Even without that level of expectation, though, the ending is…so dumb. Admittedly, knowing the book is set in the 1960s turns the ending into a  very dark flip side to the wide increase in liberal values that characterises the decade, which is a very interesting angle to view it from. Yet even then, the ending barely works as a cautionary tale, and naturalistically it makes so little sense that my reaction to the final two pages can only be communicated by Troy.

I have to say, it was nice to get back to the days of reading a book in one sitting (easily done with this slim volume), but ultimately that experience would have been far sweeter with a less frustrating book.

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