Courtney Johnston's Reviews > The Driver's Seat

The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark
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's review
Jul 16, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: borrowed, extraordinary, fiction

You know how something can be so cold it burns? Like metal on a winter morning, or dewy grass on bare feet on a summer night? This brief, relentless little book by Muriel Spark made me think of that sensation.

'The Driver's Seat' is possibly one of the most pitiless books I have ever read. Sparks creates a central character, Lise, who is it almost impossible to like or comprehend, and then drives her towards her death.

We are told very early on what is going to happen. The book opens with Lise shopping for a dress for a holiday somewhere Southern - and becoming irrationally, almost hysterically angry when a shop girl tries to sell her a frock made with newfangled stain-resistant material. Lise goes to another store, buys herself a different outfit: a 'lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in brights V's of orange, mauve and blue'. She pairs this, to another shop girl's consternation, with 'a summer coat with narrow stripes, red and white, with a narrow collar':

'Of course, the two don't go well together,' says the salesgirl. 'You'd have to see them on separate.'

Lise does not appear to listen. She studies herself. This way and that, in the mirror of the fitting room. She lets the coat hang open over the dress. Her lips part, and her eyes narrow; she breathes for a moment as if in a trance.

The salesgirl says, 'You can't really see the coat at its best, Madam, over that frock.'

Lise appears suddenly to hear her, opening her eyes and closing her lips. The girl is saying, 'You won't be able to wear them together, but it's a lovely coat, over a plain dress, white or navy, or for the evenings ...'

'They go very well together,' Lise says, and taking off the coat she hands it carefully to the girl. 'I'll have it, also, the dress. I can take the hem up myself.' She reaches for her blouse and skirt and says to the girl, 'Those colours of the dress and the coat are absolutely right for me. Very natural colours.'

The girl, placating, says, 'Oh, it's how you feel in things yourself, Madam, isn't it? It's you's got to wear them.' Lise buttons her blouse disapprovingly.'

It might seem like a simple feminine passage, but it's not. Lise's arrogant treatment of the shop girls, and her seeming colour blindness, her willful seeking-out of garish, clashing colours, are our first clue that something very wrong is going on here. We are at the beginning of a whodunnit, all the clues being piled up, but it's a whodunnit turned inside out, told from the victim's perspective, and as Sparks lets it drop later on, less a whodunnit than a whydoit?.

On page 25 we are told how the story ends.

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.

From page 26 to page 104 it is a careening ride, as we follow Lise, her odd behaviour, compulsive lies, entanglements with various men who she draws on then angrily rejects. You feel no sympathy, no real fear for her - you already know what is going to happen. Instead, your eyes are glued to her, waiting to see how all the ends will be tied up.

'Eyes' are the right metaphor here. 'The Driver's Seat' is an extraordinarily cinematic novel - I felt like I was inside Sparks' head, watching the action play out. I could imagine just how it would be filmed, in uncomfortable close-ups and swinging panning shots. Sparks piles on the details, but none of them seems extraneous - especially with this heightened visuality. A scattering of rice leaking from the suitcase of a creepy New Age guru touting a macrobiotic diet and daily orgasms should be funny - but in Sparks' hands, it somehow nudges closer to evil.

As with 'Memento Mori', the only other Sparks book I've read so far, there is a gaping hole in the centre of the story. Sparks doesn't explain the 'why' in either story, even if in this one she does give us the 'who'. The coolly observant tone of 'Memento Mori' drops even further here to chilly detachment. And yet 'The Driver's Seat' is even more gripping, more masterful, more lingering. Highly recommended.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Emma (new)

Emma Makes I feel kind of annoyed with Lise just reading this review so am torn as to whether to add it to my 'to-read' list or not. Life is a puzzle.

Courtney Johnston It's a tough book, but a riveting read. A dislikable lead character is such an interesting thing for both a reader and a writer to tackle.

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