Magazine article The Spectator

Swansong at Twilight

Magazine article The Spectator

Swansong at Twilight

Article excerpt


by Francis King Arcadia, £11.99, pp. 192, ISBN 1900850990 . £9.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

It is, if you stop to think about it, an important literary question: what, exactly, is the point of short stories?

They so often can - to this reader at least - be dismissed merely as stunted or early-aborted novels, a single idea gestated in the writer's imagination that has inescapably failed to divide, multiply and develop into a full-grown body of work.

They feel incomplete, inconsequential, unsatisfying. Fortunately, Francis King has shown us a (perhaps the) redeeming feature.

He has realised that a short story is the perfect form to tell of shortened existence, of life not being allowed fully to develop or finally being brought to an end. His writing is dissatisfied, but not unsatisfying.

Certainly, this collection is tinged and tainted by grief throughout, like an old album of sepia-stained photographs.

Every story contains the presence of death, from the first, 'Mouse', in which an old man recalls the premature loss in wartime of his boyhood prefect and love ('his body shuddered against mine. Then he began to sob, in what sounded like a prolonged, useless bout of retching') to 'Causes', the final tale of a man's trip to Egypt to pick up the belongings of his dead twin, which leaves him contemplating 'the dying light of a sun that seems to rest, an enormous, immoveable disk above the sterile, humped mountains'.

Sunlight in The Sunlight on the Garden is predominantly like this: a fading, mournful twilight in which the colour has been catheterised from the world. King is keen to emphasise this contagious colourlessness, which comes to infect the very vision of his characters with their 'watery, washed-out blue', 'bleak, extraordinarily pale blue', or 'wide-spaced pale-blue' eyes. Such a muted approach allows King to create a sense of understated understanding of the people he describes; it allows him, crucially, to be revealing without being showy. This is an old man confronted by his own morbidity: 'twitchingly restless, as a knee jerks, his knuckles creak as he cracks them, or he keeps biting his dry lips, sometimes making them ooze a small, lethargic bead of blood'.

This is a husband who has just identified the battered body of his dead wife ('teeth smashed, nose flattened'): 'resting his head against the tattered, dusty grey velvet of the chaise-longue, he pressed his fingers against his eyeballs as though to squeeze out the ghastly, ghostly image lodged behind them'. …

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