Inglorious by Joanna Kavenna

Rosa Lane, 35, has it all: a successful career in journalism, loving parents, and a handsome boyfriend. Life is moving along merrily until Rosa’s mother unexpectedly dies. Rosa is shattered. Her disintegration, which takes the better part of the novel, is a crushing evocation of depression.

Inglorious opens with Rosa at her desk, trying to write a feature article. Her mind is frozen; she can think only about the meaninglessness of her work, the people around her, the crazed hum of a London business day. She emails her editor a note of resignation and heads home. The plummet has begun.

Back at the flat she shares with Liam, her partner of a decade, things are going poorly. The apartment is a mess. The couple alternately pick at each other or fall into silence, forcing Rosa to admit that the relationship has soured. Yet she is stunned when Liam dumps her for Grace, a mutual friend. Now jobless, homeless, and single, Rosa lands briefly in friend Sandra Whitchurch’s flat, where the atmosphere of pity is crushing. After a week, Rosa decamps to acquaintance Jess’s flat, where she rapidly wears out her welcome.

The book is largely internal. As Rosa wanders London muttering to herself, we are trapped with her inside an endlessly nattering mind, obsessively circling itself. She prepares endless lists, imagines conversations, and makes desperate attempts to parse “reality”. Rosa has fallen into a frightening state, certain that beneath the dailiness of living, with all its mundane trappings — commuting, office politics, take-out food — lies an abyss. Only where many of us try to look away, or build a life despite that knowledge, Rosa peers downward, then falls in.

Rosa’s father, meanwhile, has recovered from his wife’s death. Each of his days is fitted neatly to a schedule. He has a new girlfriend. He is learning Spanish, playing tennis, and writing historical articles. When his daughter asks him about the abyss, he shrugs. His generation survived the war. Life is to be lived a certain way. Don’t think so much.

What Rosa really wants from her father is money, but both are too discreet to bring up the topic. Both are masters of the indirect, or to paraphrase Pink Floyd, expert in quiet desperation as the English way. Rosa’s rambling, wordy indecision is often grating; like her friends and colleagues, you want to give her a shove. On with it! Quit obsessing over the unanswerable!

But Rosa wants to obsess. She hopes to find the meaning of life in her ever-expanding, endless reading lists, which includes Kierkegaard, The Man Without Qualities, Plato, and Aristotle. She never does manage to read these works, nor attend to the more mundane tasks on her lists. (Hoover the living room. Clean the bath.) Her funds are soon depleted, leading to pressing calls from the bank, a place Rosa visits numerous times, begging for both time and money. She is granted neither. Nor is she able to find a job. She continues wandering London, disoriented, increasingly reeling, often soaked and cold from inclement weather. She is obsessed by a graffiti tag seen everywhere: temp. What or who is this temp? Her mind circles it wildly, coming up empty.

The novel’s sole bright spot comes in the unlikely form of Andreas Beck, an aspiring actor who becomes Rosa’s lover. Gentle, kind, and accepting, he never questions Rosa’s eccentricities or tries probing beneath the surface she offers him. Rosa invests countless mental hours working up the nerve to ask if she might crash at his place, a question she never manages to cough out.

Kavenna’s writing is dense, each sentence packed with observation of the natural world and the people in it; approaching the Lake Country by trains, Rosa sees:

… a series of hills emerging to the west, deep curves of rock and moss. She saw a cold pink band on the horizon … There were steep slopes and small grey cottages scattered across them.

Here is Jess’s apartment, a map of her character:

… built-in cupboards like stowage on a boat, with novelty portholes. On the wall she put up framed posters from exhibitions she’d seen at the Tate. She had painted everything pale pink … it was moving how colour-coordinated Jess made her flat.

When Rosa takes an ill-fated trip to visit friends Judy and Will, Kavenna has a ball poking quiet fun at them. The couple have retreated to an enormous, dilapidated farmhouse they are simultaneously renovating and filling with children. All food is grown locally; Will is dismayed because there is no daddies group. As the couple contend with their screaming children, they feed Rosa lamb shank stew and babble on about the bliss of country life. It’s akin to listening to people who move from Manhattan upstate, where they remodel mansions and learn to make artisanal cheeses. When the conversation turns to Rosa’s decline, she becomes drunk, breaks an antique wineglass, and sobs at table. The next morning she flees before the rest of the house awakens, humiliated and hung over.

And so it goes. Who among us hasn’t fallen prey to the overwhelming meaninglessness of cubicle life? But as Rosa steadily decompensates, her limited viewpoint and clutch of lists grow wearying. By page 247, Rosa’s aimless hysteria has exhausted not only her friends and family, but her readers. Her recovery, or rather the beginnings of it, is sudden and unconvincing. It’s as if after 280-odd pages of lunacy, Kavenna realized she had to wrap it up and tacked on an ending.

Is the book worth reading? Yes, for its brutal dissection of what lies beneath our days, and what happens to those who question that beneath too closely. But caveat emptor: Inglorious‘s unremitting darkness makes it tough going; that you may relate to Rosa’s fall will make it all the more difficult.

RATING 7 / 10