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Friday, 18 April 2008
In the Dark
by Deborah Moggach
In London, 1918, Eithne Clay, widowed by the war, struggles to keep her dismal boarding house going in the face of unpaid rent and food shortages. The lodgers, all in the dark in their own ways – the blind Alwyne Flyte; Mr Spooner, who doesn’t leave his room; Winnie the housemaid who views the world from ‘below stairs’ – inhabit a dreary establishment where nicotine has drained all colour from the wallpaper, and the nearby railway blows smuts of dirt and soot through any open window. Into this cheerless scene strides Neville Turk, whose butcher’s shop blazes electric light into the foggy street. But there is something dark about him too, because despite the scarcities and privations of the war, Neville Turk seems to be a man with plenty to offer. ’People pressed their noses against the glass, gazing into his theatre of meat – shapely legs of mutton… glistening necklaces of sausages.’ Soon parcels of meat are arriving at Palmerston Road on a daily basis.
In the gloomy grip of adolescence, 14 year old Ralph Clay hovers on the fringes of boarding house life, observing the burgeoning love affair between his mother and Neville Turk. Ralph is both repelled and fascinated by their passion, unyielding in his dislike of the butcher. ‘I’m a vegetarian’, he declares, as Neville Turk woos not only Mrs Clay but the hungry lodgers with his munificence, ‘a platter of rump steaks swimming in rich brown gravy’.
The residents of Palmerston Road are as pitiable a cast as any drawn by William Trevor or Brian Moore. But as Deborah Moggach turns a spotlight onto each one, every character yields other dimensions. Mrs Clay, genteel and respectable, her dreams unfulfilled by her late husband, sees a lavish lifestyle beckoning, and cannot resist the advances of Neville Turk. Ralph’s clarity of vision makes for an enjoyable journey for the reader. Winnie’s vision of herself is poignant. This is a wonderful book, which will repay re-reading, not least for the Dickens-like naming of characters.
In the Dark was longlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2008.
reviewed by Máire Napier