Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 128 pages; 2006.
Oooh, my goodness, the late Muriel Spark did a fine line in totally batty, off-the-wall characters, didn’t she? In this novella, first published in 1970 (and recently long-listed for the the Lost Man Booker Prize), she introduces us to the 30-something Lise, who escapes her boring office job for a holiday to “the South”. Except this is no ordinary holiday — and Lise is no ordinary office worker.
From the outset she behaves in inexplicable ways. When she throws a complete strop in a clothes shop for what seems like a very odd reason indeed — she didn’t like knowing that the dress she wanted to buy was made from stain-resistant material — the reader immediately wonders whether Lise is highly strung or simply a bit weird. When she returns to the office and begins to laugh hysterically and then starts “crying all in a flood” you think maybe she’s just hormonal.
But later, when she eventually buys the outfit she wants to take away with her, a garishly designed dress comprising “a lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue” and a clashing summer coat featuring narrow stripes of red and white, with a white collar, you realise she’s just completely barmy. This opinion is cemented when Lise tells the disbelieving sales assistant that:
The colours go together perfectly. People here in the North are ignorant of colours. Conservative; old-fashioned. If only you knew! These colours are a natural blend for me. Absolutely natural.
Oh yes, Lise is a nutter. And you just know her trip to the Continent is going to be filled with one narrow escapade after another.
And this is where I break one of my reviewing rules and reveal a plot spoiler, so if you don’t wish to know what happens next, can I suggest you skip ahead to the very last paragraph.
Just when you are looking forward to finding out how the supposedly well-travelled Lise is going to negotiate a foreign culture wearing such a hideous combination of clothes, Spark introduces a curve-ball. You are only on page 25 and Lise hasn’t even got on the plane, when you find out that she will be murdered:
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.
Right-o. So, immediately, the tension gets ratcheted up a few notches because you want to know how Lise meets her sorry demise. And so you follow her shenanigans with a weird mix of fear and fascination, because even though she’s a screwball character you don’t want her to die.
And that, I suppose, is the magic of this wonderful book. It’s only 107 pages long and easily read in one sitting, but it is such a masterpiece of plotting and suspense that you wonder how Spark achieved it in so few a words. Everything is pared down to the bare minimum without losing that sense of excitement and sheer horror as Lise bumbles her way through the streets of an unnamed European city.
The Driver’s Seat is terribly dark fodder, but I loved every moment. I don’t think it will win the Lost Booker, if only because it’s so short and is over before you’ve even begun it, but it’s definitely a book that demands a second or third reading to see if you can discover exactly how Lise plotted her journey of self-destruction.