There are novels which hold, indeed grip and bind, the reader to their stories even though they have demanded a constant suspension of belief. Such a novel is the British writer Bernice Rubens' "Favours." Again and again through its curious progress I said to myself: Nonsense, this could never happen. I questioned the idea of solitary, retired, 60-year-old spinster Jean Hawkins living entirely accordingly to the "orders" she writes for herself in her five-year diary. I wondered at a life stringently limited to two memories, that of a vicious matron who ran the orphanage Miss Hawkins lived in until the age of 14, and that of Morris, an orphan who hanged herself there. I had some trouble accepting Miss Hawkins' acceptance of elderly Brian's menu of favors which she pays for, item by item, during the five years following her retirement from the candy factory she has worked in for 46 years (the diary was the retirement present). A touch of her fingers, a hand on her kneecap, a peck on her ear, and more for more pence - these favors absorb all her savings and impoverish her, leaving her rich only in the irrational belief that Brian will marry her.
But the plan fact is, after Miss Hawkins' life goes on past her decision to die on the day of her retirement, and despite my doubts and incredulity, I went on with her, from one absurdity to the next, until I realized I was committed to her every mad procedure. Hiss Hawkins lets out her rage, at Matron and the nightmare of Morris, at Brian's avoidance of the subject of investing her favours money in "tin," by knitting an interminable scarf which we suspect (rightly) is destined to end in a life-taking noose. (Interestingly, this knitting of an unending scarf is an occupation of Bruce Gold's senile stepmother in Joseph Heller's new novel.) And Miss Hawkins spends weeks on the rituals of ordering for herself a white wedding dress and veil without the prospect of nuptials. Brian, that ingenious entrepreneur in small sexual favors, unknown to Miss Hakins, makes a profitable business out of his services to other elderly ladies, so profitable that he can afford to place his nasty incontinent mother in her preferred retirement home, call The Petunias.
Everyone in "Favours" is aging, half-mad, or calculating conniving. Often Rubens' cleverness, wit, and turns of plot may remind the reader of Muriel Spark's "Memento Mori". For while the surface of this, Rubens' ninth novel (but the first, I think, which promises to make its way into American notice) is remarkably funny, full of contrivances and coincidences, there lurks under the surface some moving pathos. There is a point the the readerhs progress into the story when the humor of the situation turns to hurt, when one aches for lonely mad Miss Hawkins, when the portrait of solitary and crazy old age and its unexpected sexual pleasure becomes almost too sad for comfort. There is no escape from the unreimitting journey toward death, for all the ways of the characters are crooked with looniess.
Read "Favours," and laugh, uncomfortably. Read it and weep. But, surely, read it.