In the Dark

Review of Deborah Moggach, In the Dark

New York Times, October 23, 2015

If you’re familiar with the British writer Deborah Moggach, it’s probably because of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the 2012 ensemble film based on her novel “These Foolish Things.” “In the Dark,” her 19th book, is another ensemble production, this time set in World War I London, where Eithne Clay struggles to maintain the family boardinghouse while her husband is off fighting in France.

Assisted by her maid, Winnie, and her teenage son, Ralph, Eithne boils mutton and scrubs floors, catering to the sort of long-term guests who aren’t bothered by the threadbare sheets and browning walls. Mrs. Spooner lives in squalor on the top floor with her young daughter and shellshocked husband. Ancient, incontinent Mrs. O’Malley is plagued by unreliable dentures. A “flabby revolutionary,” Alwyne Flyte feels his way around with sticky fingers, insisting that he’s been blinded by mustard gas. They all hang on through fear of bombardment and London’s dank weather, enduring a time when death seems to be a constant.

The plot takes off when Eithne’s husband is killed. At this, Neville Turk, a flash butcher and war profiteer, sees an advantage: a pretty widow possessed of some potentially prime real estate. Wooed by slabs of meat — an unthinkable delicacy in wartime Britain — Eithne marries him and the changes begin: electricity, a telephone and schemes for redevelopment, sans lodgers. Eithne changes too, from devoted landlady to spoiled diva, swayed by Neville’s black-market luxuries and sexual prowess. Furious and neglected, her son plots revenge.

Moggach is a fine descriptive writer who captures mood through careful choice of detail. Wartime London’s grime and oppression are palpable in the greasy cobblestones and the “raw and clammy” fog that limits street lamps to “the faintest glow.” So too the boardinghouse: The “wallpaper was a pattern of brown upon ocher, darkened by age and the smoke from countless lodgers’ cigarettes”; a “flypaper hung down from the lampshade. It was stuck with black corpses.” Moggach also has a deft sense of the grotesque, employing it as an overarching metaphor for the war. The narrative lingers on images of stained underwear, Ralph’s defecating dog, litter in the Thames. Dust dancing in “shafts of sunlight” is “made of human skin.” A London neighborhood is imbued with “the faint scent of decadence like something rotting behind the stove.”

The grotesque is seen particularly in the sex that permeates the book. Ralph overhears and sees his mother and ­Neville coupling throughout the house; he discovers his own sexuality with the aid of art books and a scrawny prostitute called Jenny. Winnie, the maid, and Alwyne, the revolutionary — she raw-­handed, he smeared with cigarette ash — start an affair in the sitting room. The sex in this novel is furtive, urgent, never beautiful. Neville “sized up a flayed beast as a man would size up a whore”; as he dismembers a chicken, he pictures Eithne, “spread on the slab beneath him, her head flung back, legs open.”

And yet, despite Moggach’s descriptive brio, the novel’s purpose seems muddy. It’s too light on story — with a backloaded, final-act mystery — to be plot-­driven. But the characters aren’t sufficiently textured or empathetic to compensate; ­Eithne, in particular, is monotone after marrying Neville. Moggach’s descriptions capture a mood and an era, but her prose sometimes falters: People are “chilled to the bone” and “drop like flies,” a plotter waits “like a spider in his web,” workers “bring home the bacon.” While depicting the lives and corruptions of the home front freshens the wartime narrative, Moggach’s grotesqueries don’t reach satire. Surely we can all agree with the symbolism of this war as feckless butchery? Although “In the Dark” has ­admirable aspects, it often feels like a long presentation on “Masterpiece Theatre” set in a run-down hotel with a lot of parlor sex. But hey — that’s something.

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