The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (1970)

Not familiar with the 1974 film adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novella The Driver’s Seat, starring Elizabeth Taylor, I shouldn’t really comment on how it came across on screen, but I can’t help but point out such glowing critiques as: “Fans of Taylor may like this, but they would have to be a group with amazingly low standards.” Or maybe even Dennis Schwartz’s declaration that the film is a “must see for… those who love bad movies.” Thankfully, Spark’s novella offers a lot more.

The Driver’s Seat is a taut psychological thriller that deals with familiar topics: detachment and isolation. Lise, our protagonist, has worked in the same mind-numbing office job for 16 years. The reader quickly learns that she is dysfunctional, hysterical, and has queer, off-kilter reactions to normal, everyday situations. She dresses in gaudy, garish clothing and is irrationally angry with the saleswoman in the opening pages – our first indication that something is amiss.

Taking a holiday practically enforced by her superiors at work, Lise travels to an unknown country, dressed in her lurid clothing, ready for an adventure – or perhaps a misadventure. It soon transpires that this dark, irregular personality must be unlocked and explained in the reader’s own mind, as Lise becomes involved in a series of seemingly innocuous, but decidedly weird interactions, both in the airport and during the flight.

At just over a hundred pages, there is no time to catch breath. Granted, there is no searing, action-packed plot, but a sense of smouldering dread seeps through the pages; the anticipation leaves you suffocated. Perhaps anticipation is the wrong word, considering the novella’s ‘reveal’ as such is far from concealed: we are told barely a quarter of the way through the text what will happen to Lise, and it is the journey there that is the point. Yet still there remains a sense of anxiousness, of something teetering on the edge.

Spark’s cast is marvellous: from Bill, flirting as he sits next to our protagonist on the plane, hilariously discussing Ying and Yang, and advantages of of macrobiotic eating – the rules of which say you must have at least one orgasm per day, incidentally; to octogenarian Mrs Friedke, who joins Lise on her shopping excursions, unlike the reader entirely oblivious to her real intentions. Instead, they travel together on a search for “Lise’s man”, the elderly woman unaware of this elusive character’s real purpose.

As the novella rattles to its sublime dénouement  – in which the true extent of Spark’s talent is on display – the reader has known from early on that this book is far from your normal “whodunnit?” Indeed, Spark’s insistence that it is a whydunnit? rings apt throughout. Some may be distracted by the lack of explanation, perhaps, but Spark let’s the story tell itself, leaving the reader to make their own conclusions, and it works.

The Driver’s Seat is a brutal dissection of female victimization, flipped fantastically on its head.

★★★★☆

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