The Radiant Way

by Margaret Drabble
Knopf, 408 pp., $18.95

The Child In Time

by Ian McEwan
Houghton Mifflin, 263 pp., $16.95

Margaret Drabble
Margaret Drabble; drawing by David Levine

Two worried British novels. Ian McEwan worries mainly about the cosmos, Margaret Drabble about society. Both books tell you something about Britain in the Eighties.

Drabble is not only topical but topographical. Her characters do a lot of their worrying as they drive across London or north on the M1 motorway. These cinéma vérité sequences are very well done, and particularly enjoyable if you can recognize places. I spotted the open air stall where we buy prawns after tennis on Sundays. It stands at the junction of Harrow Road and Ladbroke Grove, in a belt of dereliction between upwardly mobile residential areas. The Notting Hill race riots took place nearby, and the homicidal Notting Hill rapist roamed these streets and underpasses. Drabble disguises him as “the Horror of the Harrow Road.” Toward the end of her novel he turns out to live in the flat above one of the main characters, the unmarried Esther Breuer. He has already decapitated Jilly Fox, exinmate of the experimental women’s prison where Alix Bowen teaches English literature once a week; her main job is in the Whitehall office of a government research unit on female offenders.

The Radiant Way is a Group-type novel with a group of three. Esther, Liz, and Alix met at Cambridge University in the Fifties. Esther, of well-heeled Austrian-Jewish extraction, has become an art historian. Liz Headleand is the deprived child of a crazy lower-middle-class widow: a talented achiever, she won a scholarship, left behind her pinched northern background, and has become a successful psychiatrist with a posh house in Harley Street and a powerful TV executive for a husband. Charles Headleand began his career making radical, innovative programs on topics of social concern. His team was famous until the Union members in it began to insist on petty rights and rules and destroyed the camaraderie on which its work depended. Charles got fed up and switched from making programs to making money in program marketing.

The third member of the group, Alix Bowen, is the nicest, and the nearest thing to being the novel’s heroine. She also comes from the north, but from the educated middle class; her marriage, to a factory worker turned adult education lecturer, has been idealistic and downwardly mobile. She is soft-hearted, high-minded, and appallingly dressed. She is Mrs. Webber in the Posy Simmonds appealing cartoon strip about a progressive middle-class family. You could say The Radiant Way is Posy Simmonds without the jokes.

Posy Simmonds gave birth to the Webbers in the mid-Seventies. In the previous decade, the thinking person’s cartoon family had been the Stringalongs, drawn by Marc. Everyone loved to hate Simon and Joanna Stringalong, a media couple dedicated to the pursuit of radical chic. Nobody can hate the Webbers: they’re poorer, kinder, woollier, and into social concern not social climbing. Whereas the Stringalongs inhabited the pages of the Times, the Webbers live…

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