Not much happens in Strangers, British author Anita Brookner’s 24th novel; it’s the quiet tale of a man facing his mortality and wrestling with regret, and much of the action goes on inside the protagonist’s head. But the plot’s minimalism is exactly what makes it so intriguing; the story of Paul Sturgis is so utterly, painfully human that it’s nearly impossible not to relate.
Paul, a retired, never-married banker in his 70s with few remaining acquaintances and no relatives (save for the widow of a long-dead cousin), lives his isolated life in London. He relishes his time spent walking among the strangers who share the city streets—strangers whom he expects to die among—but his interactions with them are superficial at best. The one person whom he visits on a semi-regular basis (Helena, the cousin-in-law) offers him little more than those strangers in the way of companionship and conversation.
What keeps Paul company are his books, thoughts and memories; like so many people who are closer to the end of their lives than to the beginning, his recollections, while frequently painful, often seem more vivid than his present life.
Everything changes for Paul when, on a solitary trip to Venice, he meets a younger woman named Vicky, a peripatetic divorcée who immediately insinuates herself into his life. Soon after he meets Vicky, Paul runs into an old girlfriend, Sarah, a formerly vibrant woman who has been burdened by age. With these two women suddenly a larger part of his life than anyone has been for years, Paul finds himself weighing his desire to be alone against a thirst for human contact that he barely knew he had.
In the account of Paul and the very few people in his life, Brookner expertly taps into the dark realities of the human condition: loneliness, regret, fear of death and sometimes-destructive rumination. Even when Paul’s ponderings become tiresome, they are relatable—after all, who among us doesn’t find our own internal dialogue tedious at times? Ultimately, Strangers is a satisfyingly melancholy read, powerful in its simplicity.