Friday 26 March 2010

The Driver's Seat

'The Driver's Seat' by Muriel Spark has got to be one of the most disturbing books I have read since Shirley Jackson's 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle'. I have been keen to read something else by her since I read 'Not to Disturb' back in December and this has been on the pile for a few weeks now.

The introduction to the book talks at length about the strength of Muriel Spark's novel openings, how they grab the reader with questions about the characters and circumstances of the story, and this is certainly true of The Driver's Seat. In the first sentence we find a woman buying a new dress, but her adverse reaction to the innocuous comments of the salesgirl leads you to realise within a few lines that there is something very wrong with this woman. We are told about her working life, and shown a picture of her stifled and highly controlled home, and you try to cut her a little slack, put her strange behaviour down to stress, but her actions become more and more bizarre as the story progresses.

Lise is taking a holiday, her first in quite some time. She buys an outrageous outfit, flamboyant to the point of garish, packs her things with just a hint of OCD, and goes off to catch her flight. When she is just described doing things when alone you could see that perhaps she is somewhat stressed, and possibly a little eccentric, but it is when she comes into contact with other people that her behaviour takes a turn for the worse. You think to begin with that she is trying to make an impression, pretending at the airport to be a seasoned traveller, and then engaging her neighbours in conversation on the plane, about things which are plainly invented. With each encounter it is as if she becomes a different person, from the flight attendants, to the concierge at the hotel, the shop assistants, the taxi driver, and, of course, poor unsuspecting Mrs Fiedke. Each one gets a different tale; she almost seems to relish the enjoyment of creating a new story for herself, going to unnecessary lengths to explain her thoughts and actions to people.

The reader is told right out that this is a kind of murder mystery in reverse. We are informed that the outcome of this holiday is that Lise will be found dead the following morning. What we are doing is observing the build up to the event. There are frequent mentions of how small characters that Lise encounters during the course of the day will recite to the police their part in the events in question. Let me tell you this does not detract from the book in any way. You are just constantly wondering why and how things are going to evolve. Each individual action or event is so innocuous, there are no 'bad' characters and even Lise' crazy behaviour seems on the surface to be totally harmless.

She seems to be searching for a man. She tells Mrs Fiedke that he is her boyfriend, and that she is expecting to meet him, but she does not know where. She keeps talking to the most unsavoury of men, and then announcing categorically that they are 'not her type'. She spends the day shopping with Mrs Fiedke, starting with a taxi journey where Lise stuffs her passport down the back of the taxi seat, telling her she is leaving it there for safe keeping. It is the first hint that she does not plan to be needing it again. She proceeds to buy a selection of random items, and then wanders off, losing interest when her companion fails to emerge from the toilets. They get caught up in some kind of student riot that has got out of hand, and become separated again. At this point the real downward spiral begins, as if with the approach of evening Lise becomes desperate to put her plan into action. Eventually she encounters Mrs Fiedke's nephew back at the hotel, fresh out of prison, with already well established problems, and, as if he is powerless to resist her compelling personality, he becomes the linchpin in her disturbing scheme.

Muriel Spark is certainly a very well thought of author, who writes in a very distinctive and unique style. At just over 100 pages ('Not to Disturb' was also very brief) this could be an intriguing novel for anyone interested in going a little off the beaten track.

I have just read, over at Verity's Virago Adventure about The Lost Man Booker Prize, and interestingly 'The Driver's Seat' is on the shortlist, having been published in 1970. I have not read any of the others so voted for it. Nice to see them asking the public for their opinion for a change.


  1. Looking forward to this Martine - it is a Spark that I haven't read and I have kind of set myself the target of reading all of the lost booker short list -

    From what i have read of Spark - I agree with the comment about openings

    Lovely review thanks for sharing -


  2. I wasn't in love with the only other Spark book I read, but this sounds perfect! Can't go wrong really by being like Shirley Jackson!


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