The chosen book for June’s meeting of the Walthamstow Waterstones monthly Book Group was The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark. I hadn’t read any books by Muriel Spark before, but saw the film of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” many years ago and enjoyed it. The book is published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, and David Lodge on the back cover described it as “an extraordinary tour de force, a crime story turned inside out”, so I settled down to read it in anticipation of a good read. And sometimes it doesn’t pay to read the blurb on the back first as it just increases expectation. I honestly think David Lodge must have been reading a different book to the one I read, as I even doubt that it would have been published at all if it had been written before the Prime!
The Driver’s Seat is a thin novel, at just over 100 pages long, so it suited the book group which doesn’t like to choose hefty tomes in case people don’t finish the book and then don’t attend as a result. The story is of a woman in her 30s, called Lise, who has worked in an accountants’ office for 16 years and who takes a trip overseas that ends in her death. We find out very little about her life apart from this, but the implication is that she is fairly mousy and non-descript, and the journey on which she embarks is massively out of character. It’s not giving anything much away by saying that her overseas trip ends in her death, as chapter 3 starts: “She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.” Repeatedly throughout the novel Spark reminds us that Lise will be found dead, bringing us back to her grisly future whenever the narrative focusses on her rather strange present and whenever a new character is introduced. It seems a rather clunky way of overly-signposting that this is a sort of whodunit, and leading the reader to question if each new character Lise meets will turn out to be the murderer.
The book was chosen for the June meeting by Simon, who runs the group, and he started the discussion by declaring that it was possibly the strangest book he had ever read. It turned out that he had read the book before selecting it as a book group choice, which I found interesting. When I suggest a book for the group I try to choose books that I think everyone will enjoy, enjoyment being my sole criterion for book group selection. But The Driver’s Seat was such a strange book that it prompted much discussion as well as widely varying opinions, so I guess that this did make it a good book choice (as well as being short!). At the end of the discussion we always rate the book out of 10, and the ratings for TDS ranged from 3 (my score!) to 8, with an average score of 6/10.
The reason I gave it such a low score was that I thought it was incredibly badly written and I didn’t enjoy it at all. I only continued reading it partly because I was going to the book group meeting and partly to find out ‘whodunit’, and then in the end it was such a disappointment with such a bad ending that I wished I hadn’t bothered. There are a number of clunky narrative devices, like the incredibly obvious signposting that goes on throughout the book. But the main reason I didn’t enjoy it is that I didn’t find any of the characters at all believable. I could accept it if it was just Lise who acts in an extraordinarily bizarre manner, and whose language and conversation is extremely unnatural, as I would put it down to the psychological makeup and/or mental health of the character. However, when ALL the characters are bizarre in both speech and actions, it just seems unbelievable. One of the people in the group thought that the whole book was like a dream sequence with characters doing unexplained things and appearing and disappearing without explanation. I have also previously pondered on the fact that I seem to have to like – or at least empathise – with the main character in order for me to enjoy the book, and in this book I found Lise not only unbelievable but also extremely objectionable.
The title of the book prompts you to ponder just who is in the driver’s seat? The phrase only appears once in the book, in one of the many ridiculous episodes and where Lise is in a taxi sitting behind the driver’s seat. This led to a discussion about whether the book was trying to make a feminist point about the position and role of women in society. Was Lise in the driver’s seat of life, and the author of her own destiny? Was it a supposed to make you question whether women should behave as Lise did? There is a huge emphasis on the garish clothing that Lise chooses to wear, with clashing colours that leads to her being described as a ‘clown’ by one character, and this clothing combined with the disparity in Lise’s character when she is at work – where she is subservient and bursts into tears – and her character abroad where she seems confident and takes charge, perhaps is intended to make you think that Lise is “up for it” and question whether this is appropriate behaviour. Does her behaviour lead to her death? The book seemed very dated to me, and I was surprised to find that it was published in 1970, but maybe she wrote it far earlier than it was published, at the height of the swinging sixties. The blurb on the back cover describes Lise as a “garishly dressed temptress” and also states that she is in search of “adventure, sex and new experiences”. Yet despite Lise seeking a man that she repeatedly refers to as her “boyfriend” and the phrase “not my type” being almost hammered home, Lise actually rejects all offers of sex and is anything but the promiscuous temptress that the back cover would have you believe – Lise is seeking something else altogether.
I was astonished to find out that in 2008 Muriel Spark took 8th place in a Times list of the greatest writers since 1945 and in 2010 the Driver’s Seat was short listed for the ‘Lost’ Booker Prize (a selection of books that might have won the award in 1970 but were excluded because of a change in the rules). To me, the only thing that it had going for it was that it was an easy read, and you did want to find out who killed Lise and how. The Driver’s Seat seemed like really poor quality student writing, that a teacher like Miss Jean Brodie would return with “could do better” written firmly across it. My copy is going into one of the Little Free Libraries that are dotted around Walthamstow, so if you find it, you have been warned!