The Driver’s Seat is Book #363 on the 1001 Book List and this review was first published in September 2012.
This novella by Muriel Spark was published first in 1970 and is a smidgen over 100 pages long, and disturbing all the way through. As John Lanchester says in his introduction to this work, “It isn’t possible to discuss the book without giving away what happens.” So quite how I am to go about giving you a review of a book that does not essentially turn out to be one giant spoiler, I’m not sure. Bear with me as I try.
The main character is Lise, a 34 year old woman who has worked in the same accountant’s office for the past sixteen years. We first meet her as she is out shopping for clothes destined to be worn on her upcoming holiday to somewhere in the south. This is presumably somewhere in the southern Mediterranean, but we are never explicitly told where.
It is clear that she is not stable from the get-go. She acts irrationally, her interactions with people are all off-beat, and for the first short part of the book you wonder just where this is all headed. Clearly it isn’t going to go well, but just how unwell things go is revealed very early on in the novella. The rest of your time reading is spent reviewing what is happening and how it plays in to the ending.
Personally I began to see the significance of most of her choices and behaviours as soon as the “reveal” was read and the motivations of certain characters became crystal clear. I was only really left with the who of this crime story to work out. That, thankfully, was not completely obvious from early on. I apologise for the vagueness of my comments. Anything otherwise would simply be me revealing the entire plot to you.
Other characters you will come across – Bill, a cultish macrobiotic Enlightenment Leader who meets Lise on the flight to the southern city and is doing his level best to get her into bed; Mrs Fiedke, an elderly woman she meets at the hotel and spends the afternoon with; Carlo, a garage proprietor who crosses paths with Lise when she is forced by rioting students to take refuge in his garage; and, Mrs Fiedke’s nephew.
This was one of the more unusual and extremely disturbing stories I have read in a little while. It is beyond dark in it’s subject matter and Lise is in no way sympathetic, although clearly she is suffering from some sort of madness. Although it is a very lucid seeming madness. I can recommend it, as I don’t think I have ever come across another book with the same subject matter written about from the same point of view. It is gripping, insofar as you want to work out just what happens and how things come to the conclusion they are earmarked for. It does not make for pleasant reflection, and even at the end we are left hanging with unanswered “whys”.
I will leave you with some examples of the prose, and madness of Lise.
On the occasion of shopping for her new clothes and the opening few paragraphs:
‘And the material doesn’t stain,’ the salesgirl says.
‘It’s the new fabric,’ the salesgirl says. ‘Specially treated. Won’t mark. If you spill like a bit of ice-cream or a drop of coffee, like, down the front of this dress it won’t hold the stain.’
The customer, a young woman, is suddenly tearing at the fastener at the neck, pulling at the zip of the dress. She is saying, ‘Get this thing off me. Off me, at once.’
On the moments before embarking on to the aircraft:
A small crowd has gathered waiting for embarkation. More and more people straggle or palpitate, according to temperament, towards the group. Lise surveys her fellow-passengers, one by one, very carefully but not in a manner to provoke their attention. She moves and mingles as if with dreamy feet and legs, but quite plainly, from her eyes, her mind is not dreamy as she absorbs each face, each dress, each suit of clothes, all blouses, blue-jeans, each piece of hand-luggage, each voice which will accompany her on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.
This last passage suggests an attention to details and observation that will come back to importance as the novella is read. And, in closing, I must say that the title is well chosen, and in my opinion – Lise was most certainly in The Driver’s Seat.