Darke story into which a little light enters
Darke By Rick Gekoski Canongate, £16.99 Reviewed by Amanda Craig
AS MANY readers here know all too well, cleverness is frequently yoked to nastiness. From Iago to Humbert Humbert, the brainy in fiction are prone to turn their intellectual superiority into the kind of misanthropy that flatters the intellect even as it rots the soul.
Few would debate the quality of Rick Gekoski’s intellect. A widely praised academic, bibliophile and writer of non-fiction, he has waited 73 years to make his debut as a novelist in Darke: and at first it seems as if his eponymous narrator is going to follow a well-worn trail. Costive, cantankerous former literature teacher James Darke hates everyone. He begins his story by getting his front door sealed against the outside world. With the curtains drawn and a Gaggia coffee machine as his one luxury, he appears to have little better to do but rant against the follies of parenthood, his former public-school students and politicians. He even feeds a noisy neighbourhood dog with chilli-laced steak.
Yet life will not be denied. Bronya, a robust Serbian cleaner who discovers a taste for Dickens, is the first to let the light back in, but family follows.
As Darke’s narrative weaves his marriage to Suzy, a moderately successful novelist and the development of their difficult daughter Lucy into the present, we come to realise that the retreat from both nature and art is due to something sadder than self-importance.
The novel turns into a poignant meditation on ageing, bereavement, and the inefficacy of books themselves as a shield against mortality. A man who once told students how, “if you will only read, and listen, you will admit a multiplicity of voices and points of view,” becomes an odiously privileged snob for whom there seems no redemption. Or is there?
The problem with this kind of writing is that it tends towards the monologues written by grumpy old columnists, rather than a work of fiction. It is the multiplicity of voices which is largely missing, at least until Darke’s little grandson Rudy enters the picture at the eleventh hour.
Told by his totty-headed parents that books with talking animals are “stupid and bad for you”, Rudy offers the possibility of one last reader to be saved. Dr Darke becomes “Gampy”, and an entertaining fulmination is transformed into a wise and humane story.
Gekoski: from fulmination to wisdom