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More Intelligent Life: "Never less than a pleasure to read."

Date: Dec 1 2010

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by Molly Young

FAY WELDON, novelist and known wit, is not the likeliest writer of grim dystopian fiction. Ms Weldon, after all, is a woman whose autobiography is titled "Auto da Fay";  who coined the slogan "Vodka gets you drunker quicker" in her previous capacity as a copywriter; and whose output includes titles like "Puffball" and "The Fat Woman's Joke". And yet Ms Weldon's 29th novel, "Chalcot Crescent" (published in Britain last year and out now in America), is a work of grim dystopian fiction. The book's cover, with its embattled-looking fortress, invokes Poe's "House of Usher".


Ms Weldon's narrator is Frances Prideaux, an octogenarian whom we first encounter crouched on her staircase while bailiffs pound at the front door. Frances has lived in her Chalcot Crescent home through "five decades of world history," she tells us. "I have been living witness to the birth and death of feminism, the terror and denial of the dangers of nuclear war, the rise and fall of terrorism, the fall of first communism, then capitalism—which once we thought would last for ever—the death and rebirth of nationalism, and I survived.” In some ways Frances's world is quite different from our own: secret police pose a threat, charities have joined forces to become one megacharity called CiviKindness, and everyone is a conspiracy theorist. In other ways, however, the world is quite recognisable. Nobody reads the small print, trust in banks is faltering and adolescents disappoint their parents. This makes some sense, as this story is set just three years hence, in 2013.


Frances is a writer, and the book is presented as her document. In short chapters, she pens a memoir of her work, children and lovers, interspersing it with bits of speculative "fiction" explaining the lives of her children and the collapse of the world around her. "We are not yet at the stage when girls are selling their honour for a bar of chocolate," she notes, "or their family silver for a bag of potatoes—though some say that's not far down the road." As Frances documents her waning years, her grandson, Amos, sets up a politically radical cell in her home. Frances's son-in-law, meanwhile, is at work for the nation's nefarious, omnipotent government. Although the usual tropes of dystopian fiction are here—surveillance, drugs, suspicious meatloaf—Ms Weldon's plot is so joyously overstuffed that nothing feels derivative.


The heart of the book, however, is Frances, whose tone of bemused meditation makes her a welcome companion. “I am not so eager to stay alive, though I will miss knowing what happens next," she decides at one point. Evaluating her daughter's seemingly mismatched husband, she observes that “Nature, always seeking balance, chooses opposites to attain it. And the children turn out well, as children of opposites so often do. The amiable and the morose, the competent and the incompetent.” Like the crumbling home in which the narrator finds herself trapped, "Chalcot Crescent" rambles and occasionally stoops under the weight of its own complications. With the indomitable Frances as a guide, however, Ms Weldon's novel is never less than a pleasure to read.

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