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Self-Imprisoned by Devotion to Duty

PRISONS take many forms, and some of the most confining are also the most invisible. With no bars and no cells, they are fashioned entirely by unwitting prisoners themselves.

For Anna Durrant, the heroine of Anita Brookner's 12th novel, it is the cloistered London apartment she shares with her frail mother that becomes a chintz-covered jail of sorts. Single and childless at 50, Anna has turned being a devoted daughter into a lifetime career - her only occupation except for the pretense of a vague research project on 19th-century Paris salons. So hermetic is her life that when she disappears without a trace after her mother's death, it takes her few acquaintances, led by her p hysician, Lawrence Halliday, four months to notice her absence.

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The decades of virtuous care-giving leading up to that disappearance form the heart of this deeply affecting novel. Anna, proudly independent and desperate to be useful, maintains a selfless, cheerful pose as years slip by with stultifying sameness - reading, watching television with her mother, and sewing tailored suits. One of her few diversions is an annual trip to Paris to visit her only friend, Marie-France, who, like Anna, has centered her life around a parent, in this case her father. Both friends

have gone through life pleasing others, never daring to ask that most basic question: What do I want?

But near saintliness does not always count as a virtue. Those who know Anna find her constant smile maddening, her uncomplaining goodness unnerving. Her solicitude particularly annoys her mother's friend Vera Marsh, a sturdy, no-nonsense octogenarian who regards Anna as an "upsetting" person. "All that forbearance!" she sputters.

In midlife Anna confronts an awful truth: Everything in her life has been fraudulent, a tangle of deceptions. Her relationship with her mother was based on deception - her mother pretending to be stronger and more cheerful than she felt, Anna striving always to protect the older woman from hurt. Even her letters to Marie-France strike a false note as Anna uses "her most carefully chosen words" to twist "her melancholy into something amusingly philosophical."

As Anna admits later, "I believed my mother, who told me ... that the best things in life are worth waiting for. And I waited. That was the fraud, the confidence trick.... "

Now alone in the world, Anna is still waiting - but for what? She foresees a future that could bring "a long succession of empty days, when no-one would call her by her name and ask of her such tasks as she was usually eager to perform."

As she alternates between loss and hope, Anna must come to terms with her romantic feelings for Dr. Halliday and her changing relationship with Marie-France. Only then can she begin to find freedom from her self-imposed imprisonment.

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Loneliness, deception, and the plight of midlife women are recurring themes in Brookner's novels. Yet "Fraud" is not depressing. As Brookner explores these themes in her quiet, elegant prose, she brings new insight to old dilemmas.

For there is nothing predestined about the fate of Brookner's characters. To be a slave or not a slave rests in their hands. If they can convert the admirable impulse to be needed, to be useful, from a guilt-ridden duty to a free act of love, their relationships will lose their shackles, their prison doors will fly open. This remains Brookner's subtle promise to her heroines and her satisfying gift to her readers.