PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 March, 2010, 12:00am

by Anita Brookner
Penguin, HK$121

Anita Brookner has the dubious distinction of being the shortest winner of the Booker Prize. I don't mean to suggest the novelist is small: instead, her 1984 book, Hotel du Lac, is less than 200 pages long, the sort of novel Vikram Seth uses as a bookmark. Strangers is not much longer, but just as sad and slightly older. Brookner's main character is Paul Sturgis, a recently retired London banker who is desperate to feel liberated after many years of diligent toil. Only, where does liberty begin and loneliness end? As Brookner notes with chilly clarity: 'Paul Sturgis had always known that it was his destiny to die among strangers.' Now 72, Sturgis is preoccupied by thoughts of death and memories of youth: his childhood; his mother; his family. Of these, only one remains alive: Helena. Like Paul, she lives on her own. There is an old flame, Sarah, who can't quite square the clever, cultured but disconnected Paul with the man she once loved. Brookner writes with spare grace and psychological insight. Sturgis is a tortured soul, but mainly by thoughts of talking about the weather. Strangers is an elegant hymn to ageing.