Muriel Spark’s new novel is her twentieth, and very short. It ends on page 160, which is a slight cheat on the publisher’s part, because every chapter ending on a right-hand page is followed by a blank one. Still, it enhances the elegant look of the book and so matches Spark’s own habitual and idiosyncratic elegance of writing. This combines grand seigneurial lavishness with the delicate economy associated with the city of her birth, Edinburgh, where her famous heroine, Miss Jean Brodie, taught in a school modeled on the one Spark herself attended.
If the obvious economy of Reality and Dreams lies in its brevity—short book, short scenes, short sentences—its lavishness lies in the plot. This centers on a film director called Tom, and crams in two accidents, one of them fatal, two attempted murders (of Tom), an extraordinary number of amorous alignments and realignments, and—very hard to swallow, this—the casting by Tom of his sociologist daughter Marigold as a male Celt in a film set in Roman Britain.
Marigold is Tom’s child by his present wife, Claire. He has another daughter, by his first marriage, who is called Cora. Cora is beautiful, charming, and kind. Marigold is disagreeable; nobody can stand her. She is writing a book on a highly topical subject: Shock and Despair: A Study of Redundancy Today. She herself is a redundant wife because her husband has turned himself into a travel writer in order to get away from her as much as possible. Cora’s husband, on the other hand, is more conventionally redundant, having lost his job with a paint manufacturing firm, and Marigold’s other brother-in-law has been laid off by the electronics company he worked for. Minor characters throughout the novel reflect more or less gloomily on their redundancy problems, which include male impotence. Marigold’s chief interest is not redundancy but murder: the attempts on her father’s life were made at her instigation. Why?
Well, Marigold has always been “simply a natural disaster.” Her parents “tended at first to blame themselves. But they were in no wise to blame.” Evil to Spark is a fact with no ascertainable causes, part of God’s inscrutable design. This makes a good basis for a thriller, where motives—i.e., the causes of effects—have to remain hidden for as long as possible. But too much fortuity can turn into shambles. The dust jacket quotes the novelist William Boyd’s declaration that “Summaries of Muriel Spark’s novels do them a disservice.” I shall cling to that. I admire her writing and should hate to do her a disservice. Still, reading Reality and Dreams felt like doing one of those children’s drawing games where you have to join up numbers scattered, apparently at random, over a blank page. You end up with the picture of a teddy bear or a bunny.
In the novel you end up with a thriller-cum-whodunit whose characters are about as…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.