Darke story into which a lit­tle light en­ters

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Amanda Craig’s new novel, ‘The Lie of the Land’, will be pub­lished in June by Lit­tle, Brown

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

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