"Her Victory" is Alan Sillitoe's 12th novel in 24 years and, like its 10 immediate predecessors, strives to push the author's reputation beyond the boundaries set for him by the success of his first novel, "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1958), and his splendid early story, "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" (1959), both of which were made into memorable films. Yet I predict that this latest attempt will not only fade quickly in the reader's mind, beside the memory of those vital first books, but also will confirm the suspicion that Sillitoe is a "written-out" writer who has ventured beyond his original and narrow range -- that of provincial English working-class life--only at the cost of the spirit of authenticity that so distinguished his early work.
This book, however, aspires to greatness as nothing less than the definitive modern love story. Many chapters are spent in introducing Pam, unhappily married for 20 years to an alleged brute of a fellow out of the Nottingham proletariat, and many more in extricating her from the situation and setting her up in a cold, shabby London flat to face an uncertain future alone. Fortunately for Pam, a sympathetic rough-diamond of a lesbian named Judy lives in the downstairs flat, and a cool, tough, somewhat mysterious naval officer named Tom stops by periodically in the flat next door. Pam, not unexpectedly, falls in love with both of them, but especially with Tom, who rescues her single-handedly not only from a suicide attempt but also from the terrible George and his three brothers, who come rampaging down the road from Nottingham to fetch her back into slavery.
A further 19 chapters are then required to discover the roots of the erstwhile orphan Tom, whose Jewishness seems to have originated in an attempt by Sillitoe to write a latter-day "Daniel Deronda" -- his book is certainly as massive, if nowhere near as profound, as George Eliot's flawed 19th-century masterpiece--but ends in an apparently quite separate attempt to slot his novel into contemporary history by having hero, heroine and child emigrate to Israel. This departure from Nottingham is, however, accomplished only after a further 39 chapters, pursuing in picayune detail the complicated affairs of Tom, Pam and (sometimes) Judy in love and adrift, as the section titles put it, in and out of London, Brighton, France and Italy.
The trouble with "Her Victory" is that Sillitoe's prose degenerates beyond belief when he tries to write of his characters' inner lives or thoughts; unfortunately, this represents the bulk of the book. His sentences fall typically into one of two patterns. On the one hand, they are short, jerky and rhythmically monotonous, encouraging absurdity: "She hadn't slept for years. Yet she wasn't sleeping. His weird battering left her sore. She didn't know him, yet wanted to. His intense and purposeful love made him unknowable. He was a stranger home from the sea and she was a woman in from the storm." On the other hand, the writing can become extraordinarily prolix and abstract. Syntax is ignored to sometimes comic effect: "What she had lived could not be taken away, but anguish did not diminish on seeing the first light of another day straining at the window, which could only be pushed back by switching on the light and glancing in the mirror as she passed to brush her teeth at the sink." The result is often banality.
The most damaging consequence of this is the dramatic inertness of the novel's main characters. Any one of several female writers -- Elizabeth Bowen or Margaret Drabble or even Doris Lessing -- could have created a more credible heroine and perhaps even a more life-like hero than Sillitoe does here, though perhaps none of them could have matched the zest of his portraits of George and his Dickensian brothers. Pam is a nonentity, a composite feminist stereotype, so unmarked by "visible distinguishing features" that I found it impossible even to imagine what she looked like. Tom, we are told, has red hair, a "silent and ungiving expression" and looks "like a monk in a film." But he is also a pompous moralizer, more a bundle of ideas in the author's head than a character with any real independent life.
There are some superb bits of writing in the novel, but they are mostly descriptive pieces, set here and there in the dull prose like bright paper stars. In one or two instances, snippets of weather or scenery are used quite subtly to suggest a mood or a place, as when Pam watches from a train window the fields of England flashing by: "They jumped hedges, rolled up hills, were sucked into cuttings, darkened into nothing by woods and tunnels. They opened like fans, and were split by full meandering streams, pure fields of green, ploughed, half ploughed, scrubbed meadows and clattering patchwork by the window as if they would come in and cover her." These successes are not enough to compensate for the book as a whole.