I've read some pretty good books so far this year--comforting, entertaining, creative, even compelling. And then. Every so often you come across a book where when you turn that last page it isn't just with a contented sigh of of satisfaction. There's that, too, but you think--wow, now that's really brilliant. Deborah Moggach's In the Dark is for me that rare book where everything comes together just perfectly and reminds me just what it is that I really love about reading--why I spend so much time with so many books in hand and am forever in search of that perfect story.
All those accolades that appear on the book's jacket by other reviewers? For once they are all spot on and I will chime in with my own. This is the best book I've read so far this year and actually the best book I've read in a long while. The writing, the plotting and pacing, the characters--they all come together in just the right way. Had I known she was this good, I would never have let the book languish so long in my reading pile.
In the Dark is a story that exudes sex. Now let me qualify that statement before you get the wrong idea. It's sexy without being salacious. It's sophisticated and serious and utterly stylish without talking down to the reader. It's perfect in its construction and the characterization is so true that I can imagine each and every character living and breathing and inhabiting this fictional space. Deborah Moggach is a masterful storyteller. So many emotions swirl around beneath the surface, but at the heart of the story I think Moggach is exploring the nature of love in its many guises. It's just that the sex is so very obvious. But it's everything else that I find so interesting and compelling and that makes this such a perfect read.
The setting is a London boarding house during WWI. It's run by the beautiful widowed Eithne Clay who's left to raise her teenage son alone and try to make ends meet. Winnie, the serving maid, is her only help and the two have become somewhat close in their shared responsibilities. There's a handful of lodgers, each with some peculiarity or other, each with some quirk or damaged in some way by the war or just by life in general. The house and even the residents themselves have all seen better days. It's a world of genteel poverty weighed down by a lack of everything and by the war which is forever hovering in the background. And a world that is changing rapidly, as the story rolls out you can feel how subtly, and sometimes not very subtly, life as it has been lived is fading away into a new (and sometimes for some people uncomfortable) normal.
Eithne is a passionate woman. There are hints that her marriage was less than satisfactory and she's not entirely sad that her husband will never return from the war. Ralph, her son, is heartsick about it and about the friends he's lost. He's on the cusp of adulthood with no one to guide him there save the male residents of the boarding house who are none of them especially good role models. Into their lives walks Mr. Neville Turk, the neighborhood butcher, who can only be described as a manly man, if you'll forgive the cliché. If the story exudes sex, he absolutely radiates it. He's completely taken with Eithne and he woos her with the bounty that makes up every aspect of his life. If the war has made Eithne and her lodgers all the poorer, Neville's life only seems to have improved.
The inevitable happens. Neville has a certain charisma, and while even Ralph's dog comes to love him and the lodgers appreciate him, not everyone sees him as the altruistic benefactor he appears. Eithne and Neville marry and the boarding house changes irrevocably. To give more of the story away would be a pity, since everything builds with such a convincing momentum. But I have to say something about the construction of the story. And I am choosing my words carefully--building and constructing, like a house of cards almost, and just one false step will send it all tumbling down. This is what Moggach does so brilliantly. For every action there is a reaction. So, too, in the story there are parallels carefully constructed yet subtly done. It's no accident that Neville the butcher has managed to stay out of the war, a bloody war being fought across the Channel. Nor is it an accident that when electricity comes to the boarding house, that the brilliant light is so very illuminating.
This is another case of a story where you feel like you've been somewhere and thought something substantial by the end. It feels like London 1916, if you know what I mean. And the ending is is so very fitting--I only wish I could tell you how it turns out--but best you go and discover it yourself!
If the rest of Deborah Moggach's books are even half as good as this one, and I count seventeen and two short story collections, then they are going to be very good indeed. And I plan on reading as many of them as I can get my hands on!