Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill review – a reissued gem

In the only novel by the acclaimed memoirist, first published in 1967, a young woman comes of age in 1950s England

Best known as an editor and memoirist, Diana Athill also wrote two books of short stories and this novel, first published in 1967 and now reissued. It shows her editor’s eye for an arresting opening – “When I was at school I used to think that everyone disliked me” – and the story ends with the emotion neatly reversed: “There’s something almost enjoyable in having one person in the world I can truly hate.”

We get from there to here through the pitches and rolls in the life of a young woman, Meg Bailey, in England in the 1950s. They do things differently there: girls marry for parental approval, a baby born outside marriage causes shame, and it’s such an innocent time that even the word “duvet” is italicised. Meg is both typical and not; she has a modest upbringing as the daughter of a rector, but doesn’t believe in God. “My father did, although being shy and having very good manners, he rarely talked about it outside church for fear of embarrassing people.” Like most children she frustrates her parents’ outpourings of love, and plans to get away as early as she can.

She goes to art school in Oxford, and while there lives with her friend Roxane’s well-off family, who make her parents seem even more embarrassing. Don’t Look at Me Like That is about belonging and not belonging: Meg moves from one home to another, concealing and revealing aspects of herself to different people, mostly men. She imagines herself as a passenger on a train, isolated from the life rushing by on the other side of the window. Her desire to smash it and grab what she sees will lead to conflict with friends and family, and to that one person “I can truly hate”.

Early on the novel seems unfocused, but it becomes tighter once Roxane marries – at her mother’s direction – and Meg gets tangled up with her husband. Athill’s skill is to make Meg sympathetic despite her bad behaviour and self-regard (“I am a pretty woman. I have known this for years”). She conjures up a chaotic life very unlike her own: the privileged upbringing that she described with such disarming self-awareness in her brilliant first memoir Instead of a Letter. This novel shows not so much that Athill should have written more fiction – we wouldn’t want to be without those memoirs – but that she could.


John Self

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Diana Athill: ‘Enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people’
The former editor on regrets, the advantages of old age and why she’s still writing at 100

Claire Armitstead

15, Dec, 2017 @12:02 PM

Article image
Instead of a Book by Diana Athill - review
Diana Athill's letters tackle big questions through small increments. By Alexandra Harris

Alexandra Harris

30, Sep, 2011 @9:55 PM

Article image
Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill review – lessons from old age
Avoid romanticism and possessiveness: a clear-eyed view from the ‘high plateau’

Tessa Hadley

26, Nov, 2015 @12:00 PM

Digested read: Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

John Crace: Not with a bang, but a whimper

John Crace

15, Jan, 2008 @12:41 AM

Article image
Rosset by Barney Rosset review – a publisher’s fight against censorship
This memoir of the American publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer is full of landmark literary moments

Merve Fejzula

21, Dec, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Diana Athill, writer and editor, dies aged 101
Centenarian writer and editor won acclaim for her work with authors such as Margaret Atwood and VS Naipaul, and for the sharp insights of her own books

Richard Lea

24, Jan, 2019 @8:36 AM

Article image
Ordinary People by Diana Evans review – magnificence and marital angst
An exuberant investigation into midlife malaise explores love, compromise and the way we live today

Arifa Akbar

11, Apr, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Twitter fiction | Diana Athill

Top writers take turns to come up with a short story in 140 characters or fewer

Diana Athill

19, Oct, 2012 @10:00 PM

Article image
Maggie O’Farrell: ‘Life is too short to waste time on books you don’t like'
The award-winning author on being inspired by Angela Carter and struggling with Henry James

Maggie O’Farrell

03, Apr, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Marilynne Robinson: ‘Obama was very gentlemanly ... I'd like to get a look at Trump’
The Pulitzer prize-winning author is ‘too old to mince words’ – and so she’s taking on the cynicism of liberals, the toxic history of America and the sloppiness of contemporary discourse

Lisa Allardice

06, Jul, 2018 @8:00 AM