When first we meet Lise, she’s out shopping for a brightly coloured new dress; but she takes exception to the sales assistant highlighting that the dress is made of stain-resistant fabric (‘Do you think I spill things on my clothes? […] Do I look as if I don’t eat properly?’ [p. 8]). She eventually buys a dress (equally colourful, but not stain-resistant) in another shop, teaming it with a coat that clashes. Immediately we’re wondering what sort of person this is, who would buy such a conspicuous outfit and seemingly wouldn’t mind if it got dirty.
A few clues – and more mysteries – emerge presently. Lise is secretive: the furniture in her apartment is hidden away behind wall panels, to be taken out when necessary. She’s dedicated: she has booked a holiday from work, but is remarkably reluctant to take time off to pack, even though her manager encourages her to. Perhaps most of all, though, she is doomed: Spark reveals early on that Lise will be murdered on her holiday; we read the rest of The Driver’s Seat trying to anticipate how that will happen, and who will do the deed.
There’s no shortage of characters who might turn out to be Lise’s murderer. Take Bill, the macrobiotic diet enthusiast who sits next to her on the plane, and invites her to catch up later at their destination. Take Carlo, the garage owner who offers to take Lise back to her hotel after she’s caught up in a student demonstration, but would actually rather take her somewhere else. But the thing is that Lise seems actively to be courting some men; goes on about them being (or not being) her ‘type’; and changes her story at will. She doesn’t seem the passive kind.
So, as its title suggests, a key issue in The Driver’s Seat is control. How does a woman apparently so in command of her destiny lose that command so dramatically? In answering that question, Spark’s short novel reveals the product of a dark psyche, but refuses to explain it – which makes The Driver’s Seat one of the most unsettling pieces of fiction I have read in quite some time. An uncertainty over place (neither Lise’s home city nor her holiday destination are identified) and dialogue which often sees characters talking at right angles, only enhance that feeling.
Simon from Stuck in a Book and Harriet Devine hosted a Muriel Spark Reading Week in April; I was unable to take part in that, which is one reason I wanted to read something by Spark now. I wish I had been able to participate, because The Driver’s Seat made such an impression on me that I want to explore and discuss Spark’s work further.